Categories
ANTHROPOLOGY ANTI-IMPERIALISM Development EMPIRE Featured GLOBALIZATION IMPERIAL DECLINE Slider SOVEREIGNTY

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.

Lar9_philippo_001z
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.

Categories
ANTHROPOLOGY ANTI-IMPERIALISM EMPIRE Featured GLOBALIZATION IMPERIAL DECLINE NEOLIBERALISM POLITICAL ECONOMY SOVEREIGNTY

NGO’s and Empire Maintenance: Aid distributors versus popular sovereignty

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

Among the many foibles and spectacles which have characterized the presidency of Donald J. Trump, was his threat to withdraw humanitarian aid from foreign countries on two occasions, the first being a threat against any and all countries who did not vote for the US’s UN resolution to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the other threatening to cut off aid to US ally Pakistan if Pakistan did not meet a series of demands, particularly compliance with the Trump administration’s strategy in Afghanistan.

In both instances, Trump and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated an old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, effectively accusing the Global South of being international welfare bums. They also assumed that US aid was indispensable to Global South countries’ survival. Yet, both Pakistan and Palestine in different ways sent a very distinct message; “we don’t care” and “we don’t need you”.

In Trump’s brash displays of bravado, he may have unwittingly contributed to the unraveling of one of US imperialism’s most effective “soft power” techniques for maintaining the loyalty of intermediaries in the Global South, namely international “aid”. International aid from the Global North cores to the Global South peripheries is by and large managed by government institutions like USAID in the United States and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) but enacted by private actors often referred to as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). NGO’s have proliferated since the 1980’s, interestingly in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism. Contrary to what much of their branding might suggest, they are essential pillars to the maintenance of imperialism today.

The “Caribbean letter”: On agency and neocolonialism in Haiti

In addition to Trump’s grandstanding, international aid has also captured recent news due to the scandals rocking once-respected Oxfam International, namely widespread sexual exploitation of Haitians by Oxfam employees and alleged use of prostitutes in Chad, and the arrest of Oxfam’s director for corruption charges related to his former role as president of Guatemala. Any of these scandals on their own would potentially topple one of the titans of the NGO industry, renowned in the Global North for its progressive credentials on issues such as gender and income inequality (though usually only from the perspective of imperial core navel-gazing), together they might mean a spectacularly quick demise.

Both these scandals have history behind them and were made possible by the deep structural characteristics of NGO’s as “force multipliers” (Forte, 2015) of US and Canadian imperialism. As a signed letter to The Guardian from Caribbean intellectuals and organizers pointed out:

“In 2008 some of us had written to Barbara Stocking, then Oxfam chief executive, objecting to a report that it sponsored, Rule of Rapists in Haiti, which labelled Haitians as rapists while hiding rapes by occupying UN forces. The year before, 114 soldiers had been sent home for raping women and girls, some as young as 11. No one was prosecuted. We wrote: “NGOs like Oxfam have known about rapes by UN forces, as well as by aid and charity workers, for decades. It’s the pressure of victims, women and [children] in the most impoverished communities, who had the courage to speak out that finally won … public acknowledgement.” There was no reply.

The latest revelations of sexual abuse by major charities…are but one facet of NGO corruption. The people of Haiti were the first to free themselves from slavery, but the colonial “masters” they defeated – France, Britain and the US – have continued to plunder and exploit, including through imported NGOs. Haiti has more NGOs per square mile than any other country and it remains the poorest in the western hemisphere. Corruption begins and ends with neo-colonial powers.

While celebrated for “doing good”, NGO professionals do well for themselves. They move between NGOs, academia and political appointments, enjoying a culture of impunity while they exercise power over the poorest. The Lancet described NGOs in Haiti as “polluted by unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations” and “obsessed with raising money”.

(Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al., 13 February 2018)

This widespread abuse often goes unnoticed by the Global North public, whose tax dollars often subsidize these projects (Oxfam receives significant funding from the UK government). In fact, in a survey of the Canadian public, 91% of Canadians expressed at least “some confidence” while 41%, almost half, expressed “great confidence” in NGO’s (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Canadians also see themselves as widely loved throughout the world (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a). Yet, as the “Caribbean letter” demonstrates, Canadian NGO’s have more questionable reputations than the wider public might assume.

The normalization of NGO’s masks a series of insidious imperialist operations. In Haiti, NGO’s were used to conceal the increasing military role of the “international community”, headed by the United States, on the island. The US has twice intervened to overthrow popular Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once in 1991 and again in 2004. The troops stationed in 2004 to quell pro-Aristide unrest remain in the country and are a key component to the management and distribution of international aid, and NGO’s are required to cooperate with these occupying forces. These same NGO’s, especially Quebec-based ones, cheered the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 (Forgie, 2014; Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Numerous NGO’s were also enlisted by the Clinton Foundation to engage in its “development projects”, which as we have discussed before, were in fact a scheme to loot poor Haitians. Such practices are more commonplace than the trusting Canadian public might assume, as state donors like USAID and GAC, or private foundations like the Clinton or Gates Foundation leverage their vast supply of funds to encourage NGO’s to act as maintenance tools for imperialism (Frogie, 2014; Reith, 2010).

BLUE-Green_Falcons_Team_With_Medical_Teams_International_to_Reach_Out_in_Haiti_DVIDS246857

That NGO’s describe such schemes as “partnerships” between themselves and government or corporate entities conceals the power imbalance between government and foundation funders and the NGO’s “on the ground”. Sally Reith (2010) describes this as the “Trojan Horse” of development discourses, implying a level, depoliticized playing field. Meanwhile, aid has a precisely political character to it, usually in favour of maintaining imperialism and neocolonialism (Engler, 2015). USAID, which is run by the US State Department, makes no secret of this, saying its purpose is to “further America’s interest while improving lives in the developing world” (emphasis added).

The Kennedy administration created USAID in 1961, and since then the agency has been the proving ground of US foreign assistance objectives. It has been proven that countries rotating onto the UN Security Council received on average 59% more aid. As soon as their term ended, aid would fall to historic lows (Kuziemko and Werker, 2006). In a related study, T.Y. Wang (1999) found that UN voting patterns on vital issues to American interests were successfully swayed through the practice of aid giving, rewarding compliance and punishing political defiance. NGO’s are often bound to these funding streams, making the name “non-governmental” seem quite unusual given their actual reliance on western government aid.

Youthful Idealism: From impetus for revolt to marketing technique

Related imageThese contemporary practices often coexist with NGO branding which promotes the role of western young people as “change-agents”, not only in their own societies, but across the entire world (Biehn, 2014). This is a legacy of the origin of NGO’s, especially in Canada, which grew out of attempts to neutralize the new anti-war left during the Pearson and Trudeau Sr. years. Many now-mainstream NGO’s such as CUSO, mostly composed of youth and students, were highly critical of the Vietnam war, and openly criticized the politicization of food aid by Canada as part of the Cold War. These organizations were lured by the relative tolerance of Pearson and Trudeau Sr.’s foreign policy, leading eventually to their institutionalization (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). CUSO was absorbed through a government coup of its board of directors, which ripped control of the organization away from its volunteers, while organizations like the Inter-Church Council (now KAIROS), had their funding slashed for criticizing neoliberal structural adjustment (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a), the beginning of “funding discipline” as a technique for maintaining NGO’s as part of the imperialist nexus.

The idea that NGO’s were an expression of youthful change-making, however, was preserved, pivoted to neoliberal ends. Biehn (2014) scrutinizes this, demonstrating how recruitment messaging directed at potential volunteers enforces neoliberal, capitalist understandings of the problem of and potential solutions to global inequalities. Problems are thus decontextualized and depoliticized. The messages reinforce a desired image of the Western youth as a powerful actor, an impetus for change, and an inspiration (Biehn, 2014).

One of the organizations Biehn uses as a case study is International Student Volunteers (ISV). I had a colleague working on a research project with ISV, which we discussed. She was quick to express her frustration with the organization being dominated by a particular milieu of people, what I would call the professional-managerial stratum along with a particularly involved section of the liberal bourgeoisie. These “white and privileged” (her words) families dominated ISV much to her frustration (her project was to find ways to increase the diversity of ISV volunteers). In hindsight, I would argue this is to be expected, as Biehn points out, ISV-style volunteerism is a noteworthy instrument for reproducing the orientation and allegiance of Global North professionals with imperialism.

Similarly, I had peers embark on various humanitarian trips, usually ranging from one to two weeks, to Haiti immediately following and a few years after the earthquake. These trips, usually financed by a combination of Foundation sponsorship, NGO collaboration, and church-based fundraising, consisted of typical volunteerism – building cheap churches, schoolhouses, etc. Looking back, it is fascinating to me that none of these students reported back anything of the political unrest and popular resentment of Haiti in their glossy presentations once they returned home, and enthusiastically accepted the presence of US marines on the island without question. The sheltering of the future young professionals and aspirant bourgeoisie whilst providing them an “authentic” experience of aid and poverty, helps create the conscious ignorance which characterizes the transnational capitalist class (Biehn, 2014; McGoey, 2012).

South-South cooperation and the urgency of Solidarity

If any more evidence was required to demonstrate that Oxfam and similar NGO’s are part of the imperialist establishment, consider that Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam, appeared at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Ostensibly, Oxfam was there to represent the voices of “ordinary people” to the global conference of oligarchs and elites, though as Marc Wergerif (2018) points out, no one asked them to speak for them. The assumption by Oxfam that it speaks for “ordinary people” is undercut by its actual collaboration with US imperialism and the transnational capitalist class and its failure to actually advocate solid propositions of popular organizations like La Via Campesina peasants’ coalition, or the Bolivarian social movements, or god forbid movements in the Global South organizing more explicitly for sovereignty against imperialism, such as the Syrian reconciliation movement.

Image result for via campesina

Furthermore, why should a transnational foundation, run mostly by cosmopolitan professionals from the Global North and a handful of compradors, speak for “ordinary people” as a homogenized mass, and not their national representatives? Wergerif says it will be popular practices and movements that will provide the solutions for global challenges, not the schemes of agencies like Oxfam. One should note that as US imperialism continues to experience an economic and strategic decline, its beneficiaries are increasingly desperate to portray its maintenance as humanitarian, internationalist, and benevolent in nature. Meanwhile, we can see an increasing trend towards South-South cooperation in the form of Latin American integration and Chinese partnerships with Africa and the Bolivarian states, anti-EU groundswell in the form of Brexit, and a general working-class rage catapulting both right and left forces to prominence in the Global North. As Wergeif says, these “people’s everyday practices” have done much more to unravel the foundations of systematic inequality than the docile managers at Oxfam could accomplish. What directions these anti-systemic trends will take remains to be seen, but it is certain that they will increasingly delegitimize NGO’s as vehicles for social change.

References

Ayed, Nalaha. 15 February 2018. “Oxfam scandal highlights spectrum of abuse: local staff, recipients — aid workers, tooCBC.

Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012a. “NGOs and empire: Canadian aid agencies take empire building seriously” in Briarpatch.

Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012b. Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.

Biehn, Tristan. 2014. “Who Needs Me Most? New Imperialist Ideologies in Youth-Centred Volunteer Abroad Programs” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 77-87.

Chandran, Nyshka. 3 January 2018. “Pakistan is ditching the dollar for trade with China — 24 hours after Trump denounced the countryMSNBC. 

Cornwall, Andrea. 2003. “Whose Voices? Whose Choices? Reflections on Gender and Participatory Development.” World Development Vol. 31, no. 8: 1325-1342.

Donnan, Shawn. 1 January 2018. “Donald Trump threatens to withhold US aid to PakistanFinancial Times.

Engler, Yves. 2015. Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.

Forgie, Keir. 2014. “US Imperialism and Disaster Capitalism in Haiti” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 57-75.

Forte, Maxmillian C. 2015. “Introduction to Force Multipliers: Imperial Instrumentalism in Theory and Practice” in The New Imperialism, Vol. 5: Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 1-87.

Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al. 13 February 2018. “NGO crimes go far beyond OxfamGuardian. 

McGoey, Linsey. 2012. “Philanthropcapitalism and its critics.” Poetics Vol. 40, no.2: 185-199.

Kuziemko and Werker. 2006. “How Much Is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations” (draft) in Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).

Nichols, Michelle. 21 December 2017. “Defying Trump, over 120 countries at U.N. condemn Jerusalem decisionReuters. 

Perez, Sonia. 13 February 2018. “Guatemalan ex-president, Oxfam chief held in corruption case.ABC News. 

Ratcliffe, Rebecca and Ben Quinn. 11 February 2018. “Oxfam: fresh claims that staff used prostitutes in ChadGuardian.

Reith, Sally. 2010. “Money, power, and donor–NGO partnerships.” Development in Practice 20(3): 446-455.

Staff. 3 January 2018. “‘Jerusalem is not for Sale’: Palestine to Trump after US threatens to cut $300mn aidRussia Today.

USAID. N.D. “Who We are”.

Wang, T.Y. (1999). “US Foreign Aid and UN Voting: An Analysis of Important Issues” in International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 43, no. 1: 199-210.

Marc C. A. Wegerif. February 2018. “People’s everyday practices, not the elites of Davos, hold the human economy answer to inequality” Pambazuka

Categories
UNCATEGORIZED

Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria

Reconciliation” has become something of a buzzword in Canada, the country of my birth, underpinning much of the mainstream discourse around the historical mistreatment of indigenous people and the future of relations between settlers and natives. One might be surprised to learn that Reconciliation is also a buzzword in Syria, but for rather different reasons. Mussalaha” (تصالح), reconciliation, has been a priority of the Syrian Arab Republic as part of its strategy to end internal strife in Syria since the 2012 constitutional reforms.

There is no denying that the war in Syria has transformed the country, and obviously in many ways for the worse; proud and ancient cities lay in ruins, millions have been forced to flee their residences and the homeland their ancestors have inhabited for centuries, terrorist gangs backed by Syria’s neighbors and by the United States continue to plague the country. Yet, as the war shifts in favor of the Syrian government, there is an ember of hope for the masses of  Syria (though you wouldn’t know it from mainstream media), and that hope is Mussalaha. Mussalaha has played a key role in the Syrian government’s political as well as military victories, and holds important implications that country, and the world’s, future.

The Mythologies of Imperial Divide-and-Conquer

In order understand the significance of this concept, it is necessary to understand Syria’s recent history, as well as to dispel some often-peddled myths about Syria, its people, and its government. Thankfully, due to the tireless work of committed independent journalists, historians, anti-imperialist and solidarity activists, and even some research by traditionally pro-imperialist journals and think-tanks, there is a wealth of evidence to construct a counter-narrative to the one promoted by the imperialists in the US State Department and corporate media.

The narrative which underlies coverage by large corporate conglomerate media usually goes something like this: The government of Syria is a ruthless dictatorship of the Al-Assad family, which hordes power for itself and its political allies in the Alawi religion. In 2011, there was an uprising against this dictatorship by the marginalized Sunni Muslim majority which was violently repressed by the government using chemical weapons and “barrel bombs” (in quotation marks as the term “barrel bomb” has yet to be clearly defined). Faced with great repression, the protesters turned to armed struggle. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in an elaborate conspiracy, implanted radical Islamist elements into the resistance which led to the growth of modern terrorist organizations like Ahrar Al-Sham, Jahabat Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and ISIS outfits in Syria.

The most comprehensive and richly historicized rebuttal of this narrative is Stephen Gowans‘ recent book Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017), which I will cite extensively (you can read an excerpt of the book here). The first myth Gowans dismantles is the idea that the 2011 protests were a peaceful “popular uprising”, using sources that would certainly not be considered “pro-Assad” by any standard. For example, Gowans quotes an article by Rania Abouzeid published in Time shortly before the 2011 protests, “Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, both emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically.” Abouzeid added that unlike “…the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” (Abouzeid, as quoted in Gowans, 2017. Emphasis added.). The same article features interviews with Syrian youth whom express support for Bashar Al-Assad’s political coalition, the National Progressive Front, for implementing fully public education and enforcing secularism.

Image result for pro assad rally syria
An almost iconic photo, a pro-government rally in the city of Saba, Syria,  draws thousands (Reuters, 2011).

On the protests which triggered the so-called “Syrian revolution”, Gowans demonstrates that these were in large part riots led by unpopular organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood who have been trying to topple the secular NPF government, with extensive US support, since the 1980s, and were violent from their outset – attacking public infrastructure and innocent bystanders, as well as, interestingly, calling for solidarity with various Al-Qaeda and proto-ISIS militias in Libya. These groups would go on to form the militias which, composed mostly of foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia to Sweden with covert US and Israeli support, would go on occupy and terrorize vast swaths of Syria.

We should also note the not insignificant fact that western media has propagated the idea that the Syrian government has deployed an arsenal of chemical weapons (in particular Sarin gas) during the course of its military campaign against these forces, including on civilians. What coverage of these alleged attacks ignores is that only one of these alleged attack sites has been subjected to an independent United Nations fact-finding mission (as they are required to be under international law) and the results of that mission were that the the Syrian government did not use chemical weapons. Therefore, all allegations of “Assad gassing his own people” and other such sensationalism are by default presumptions of guilt and should be immediately suspect, especially considering that the Syrian government surrendered its chemical weapons stores in 2013 and that the United States and its allies have blocked any independent investigations of attack sites. Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh (2017) believes this to be intentional, using insider sources from the US military to demonstrate an active campaign to demonize the Syrian government.

Hersh’s allegations are significant, because they come at a time when the US narrative on Syria is quickly unraveling. Several voices close to the US establishment; namely The Century Foundation, the New York Times, and former UN prosecutor Clara Del Ponte, have all had to make admissions that the narrative Gowans’ and other independent researchers and journalists have dedicated to deconstructing is indeed flawed. Sam Heller (2017), writing for the Century Foundation makes perhaps the most dramatic admission. Commenting on US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull funding from covert CIA support for Syrian rebel groups, he writes:

The program was intended to build a moderate rebel force that could apply serious enough military pressure on the regime to force Assad to step aside as part of a negotiated political settlement. But the latter part of that objective, a compelled transition, was always fantasy. As for the “moderate rebel force,” for the last several years much of America’s support has gone to “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) factions that have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

(Heller, 2017. Emphasis added)

This admission of funding outright terrorist forces in Syria (not a “moderate opposition” by any stretch) is a significant victory for peace activists, anti-imperialists, and everyone else who has worked to oppose the demonization of the Syrian state and US-NATO interventionism and warmongering. With the facts now established, we can better appreciate the role Reconciliation plays in Syrian state policy as both a political and ideological struggle against US-backed proxies and sectarianism.

 The National Ministry of Reconciliation and Political Reform

Of course, assuming that all is well and good within the ranks of the Syrian government would be an asinine simplification. The unleashing of the war in (or more accurately “on”) Syria revealed the need for state reforms in order to maintain stability and prevent sectarianism from being instrumentalized by the insurgency. These manifested in the 2012 constitutional reforms, which included removing the Ba’ath Party’s exclusive claim to executive office, expanding parliamentary powers, and creating mechanisms for reconciliation between different ethno-religious groups, including the National Ministry of Reconciliation, led by Dr. Ali Haidar of the opposition party the Syrian Social-Nationalists, and the forthcoming Committee of National Reconciliation. Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett interviewed Haidar in 2014. In the interview, Haidar provides an outline of the philosophy and policy objectives of Mussalaha: 

Reconciliation isn’t that we are making a deal with armed insurgents. The idea is to restore the state of security in Syria. In our work towards reconciliation, we look at two main sectors: One, the insurgents, and the other, Syrian civilians living in areas controlled by the insurgents.

Regarding the insurgents, we differentiate between the Syrian insurgents and the foreign militias. The latter refuse any dialogue with the government and are simply terrorists in Syria. And unfortunately, they are large in numbers and are the leaders of the dominant insurgent groups. The only people we communicate with are armed Syrians, not with the foreign militias.

We encourage armed Syrians to cut any ties with the foreign militias. Then, we negotiate with them on how to reconcile. We’ve been very successful, in many areas, having them disarm and go back to their normal lives. We’ve had thousands of successes.

The second focus is on Syrian society. Syrians are suffering in all respects: their security and safety, the economy, social services, education, the large number of martyrs and injured, the kidnapped, the missing, the internally-displaced… We are trying to find a solution to each one of these cases. That is the deepest meaning of ‘reconciliation’: to return people to their normal lives.

(Haidar, as quoted in Bartlett, 2014. Emphasis added)

From this, we can conclude that Reconciliation is a nationalist project. “Nationalist” not in the sense that it is ethnic or volkish but nationalist in what some might call the “Civic” sense, that is Nationalism as the construction of a community around the State – of unifying the religious, ethnic, and national groups within Syria into a coherent Syrian community which neither submerges or emphasizes these differences, but compliments them. This is a vision, according to Syrian state hagiography, that was first expressed in the 1936 Syrian rebellion and is the guiding vision of the  philosophy of Arab Socialism. This necessarily, as Haidar clarifies, includes expelling foreign fighters and insurgents, but is at its heart an inclusive project.

Dr. Ali Haidar, photographed in his office by Eva Bartlett (2014).

This policy stands in stark contrast to the image of the Syrian government, with Bashar Al-Assad at its head, as a divisive force. But understanding that Syrian state policy is primarily about maintaining social unity and preventing breakdown into sectarianism, it begins to make sense why over 50% of the Syrian population supports the Syrian government and Bashar Al-Assad specifically, why refugees tend to be fleeing from rebel-held territory and have a relatively positive view of the government (a fact I can attest to personally in addition to the linked study) and why refugees have started to return to Syria now that the war has shifted in favor of the government.

Syrian Sovereignty and the Reinvention of the Border

Of course, the concept of a “National” (read: State) Reconciliation might seem outlandish in the framework of neoliberalism, which has increasingly overrun the so called “left”, particularly in North America. Compare, for example, the attitude of the Canadian left to the US “humanitarian intervention” in Grenada in the 1980s to attitudes to the recent  interventions in Libya or Syria. There was no debate along the lines we see today; that maybe anti-imperialism should be sacrificed for the sake of “human rights”, that x, y, or z “third world dictator” had “killed his own people” and thus did not deserve our support, or that we should narcissisticly uphold “our” western models of liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of popular rule.

There are, of course, numerous things worth criticizing about the various parties and formations which made up the 1980s left, but one common position which has proved correct over the last thirty years is the understanding that the construction of centralized, yet ultimately pluralistic, states serve as one of the most powerful tools of decolonization in the contemporary era. This is precisely the kind of state that countries which have made some of the most world-shaking strides in decolonization – China, Algeria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Cuba – have all constructed on socialist foundations.

Mussalaha urges us to harken back to this understanding of what decolonization, self-determination, and democracy means, both in the first world left’s defense of third world states in the crosshairs of American Empire, and in our political programs for our own countries. Of significance in the case of Syria, both in geostrategic and ideological terms, is the existence of internationally recognized borders. The dynamics of “border control” have been precisely what has allowed the Syrian state to win victories and repel US imperialism, its proxies, and ISIS forces, and it has been precisely US efforts to either force open Syria’s borders or to fracture the country into various ethnic enclaves which have allowed the US to exercise undue influence there. While this reality’s universal implications are not the focus of this article, it is worth noting the importance of unitary state power and borders in combating imperial terra nullius.

Syrian Government Rebuilding Aleppo City (Photos, Video)
Syrian workers begin repairing streets in newly-liberated Aleppo, a key area of reconstruction for the Syrian state (SouthFront Database, 2017).

What we can say however, is that the Syrian Reconciliation project requires both a conceptual and spatial recognition of “Syria” as a political unit, which both the sectarian projects of imperialist intervention and the neoliberal discourse of left-liberals both seeks to negate in their reiterations of “ancient” Sunni vs Shia rivalries, “Alawite minority rule”, and other overt focuses on the divisions within Syrian society and exploiting them for regime-change ends (often neglecting actual minority persecution, such as the mass killing of Alawites, Christians, and Shia by opposition forces). This overcoming of sectarian division and the misapplied transference of neoliberal identity politics by left-liberals to political sectarianism to the Middle-east will be elaborated on in Part 2.

 

Conclusion

As the US vision for a fragile, recolonized Syria crumbles and forces like ISIS and Al-Nusra lose ground to the Syrian Arab Army and its domestic and international allies, and the bipartisan warmongers of the US government must begrudgingly concede defeat, I expect that the media of the “international community” (read: US imperialist world order) will produce some combination of weeping and wailing about the defeat of the nonexistent “democratic uprising” against the government and of quiet deflection away from the reality of the failure of a US campaign against another sovereign country. Because, after all, Syria, like Vietnam before it, has proven to the world that the military might of the United States is, in fact, not invulnerable to resistance, and that it can even be overcome. While the rebuilding and reconciling in Syria will take many years to come, the impending defeat of the long war on Syria is an inspiration for the modern age.

References

ABRAHMS, M., D. Sulivan, et al. (2017). “Five Myths About Syrian Refugees“. Foreign Affairs. 

BARTLETT, E. (2014). “As Foreign Insurgents Continue to Terrorize Syria, the Reconciliation Trend Grows.” Dissident Voice. 

GOEL, T. (2017). “Half a million Syrians return home as Syrian gov’t, allies liberate more areas.” Liberation News. 

GOWANS, S. (2017). Washington’s Long War on Syria. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books

HELLER, S. (2017). “America Had Already Lost Its Covert War in Syria – Now its Official“. The Century Foundation. 

HERSH, S. (2017). “Trump’s Red Line.” Die Welt. 

STAFF (2017). “Future Syrian Reconciliation Committee to Comprise Only Syrians – Minister.” Sputnik. 

STEELE, J. (2012). “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media.” The Guardian. 

WORTH, R. (2017). “Aleppo After the Fall.” The New York Times. 

Categories
DONALD J. TRUMP

The Revolutionary Distemper in Syria That Wasn’t

In celebration of the release of his outstanding book Washington’s Long War on Syria, I am republishing an excerpt written by Canadian writer Stephen Gowans, originally published in October 2016 on his blog What’s Left. The book is availiable to order from Montreal publisher Baraka Books and I encourage all our readers to get a copy and read in detail. In this excerpt, Gowans bites back at narratives which seek to salvage the Syrian protests of 2011 as some sort of revolutionary struggle and fail to see them, as he argues, as the beginning of a US-backed fundamentalist insurgency:

Apparently, the US Left has yet to figure out that Washington doesn’t try to overthrow neoliberals. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were a devotee of the Washington Consensus–as Counterpunch’s Eric Draitser seems to believe–the United States government wouldn’t have been calling since 2003 for Assad to step down. Nor would it be overseeing the Islamist guerrilla war against his government; it would be protecting him.

By Stephen Gowans (sr.gowans@sympatico.ca.)

There is a shibboleth in some circles that, as Eric Draitser put it in a recent Counterpunch article, the uprising in Syria “began as a response to the Syrian government’s neoliberal policies and brutality,” and that “the revolutionary content of the rebel side in Syria has been sidelined by a hodgepodge of Saudi and Qatari-financed jihadists.” This theory appears, as far as I can tell, to be based on argument by assertion, not evidence.

A review of press reports in the weeks immediately preceding and following the mid-March 2011 outbreak of riots in Daraa—usually recognized as the beginning of the uprising—offers no indication that Syria was in the grips of a revolutionary distemper, whether anti-neo-liberal or otherwise. On the contrary, reporters representing Time magazine and the New York Times referred to the government as having broad support, of critics conceding that Assad was popular, and of Syrians exhibiting little interest in protest. At the same time, they described the unrest as a series of riots involving hundreds, and not thousands or tens of thousands of people, guided by a largely Islamist agenda and exhibiting a violent character.

Time magazine reported that two jihadist groups that would later play lead roles in the insurgency, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, were already in operation on the eve of the riots, while a mere three months earlier, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood voiced “their hope for a civil revolt in Syria.” The Muslim Brothers, who had decades earlier declared a blood feud with Syria’s ruling Ba’athist Party, objecting violently to the party’s secularism, had been embroiled in a life and death struggle with secular Arab nationalists since the 1960s, and had engaged in street battles with Ba’athist partisans from the late 1940s. (In one such battle, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, who himself would serve as president from 1970 to 2000, was knifed by a Muslim Brother adversary.) The Brotherhood’s leaders, beginning in 2007, met frequently with the US State Department and the US National Security Council, as well as with the US government-funded Middle East Partnership Initiative, which had taken on the overt role of funding overseas overthrow organizations—a task the CIA had previously done covertly.

Washington had conspired to purge Arab nationalist influence from Syria as early as the mid-1950s, when Kermit Roosevelt, who engineered the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh for nationalizing his country’s oil industry, plotted with British intelligence to stir up the Muslim Brothers to overthrow a triumvirate of Arab nationalist and communist leaders in Damascus who Washington and London perceived as threatening Western economic interests in the Middle East.

Washington funnelled arms to Brotherhood mujahedeen in the 1980s to wage urban guerrilla warfare against Hafez al-Assad, who hardliners in Washington called an “Arab communist.” His son, Bashar, continued the Arab nationalists’ commitment to unity (of the Arab nation), independence, and (Arab) socialism. These goals guided the Syrian state—as they had done the Arab nationalist states of Libya under Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq under Saddam. All three states were targeted by Washington for the same reason: their Arab nationalist commitments clashed fundamentally with the US imperialist agenda of US global leadership.

Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to renounce Arab nationalist ideology dismayed Washington, which complained about his socialism, the third part of the Ba’athists’ holy trinity of values. Plans to oust Assad—based in part on his failure to embrace Washington’s neo-liberalism—were already in preparation in Washington by 2003, if not earlier. If Assad was championing neo-liberalism, as Draitser and others contend, it somehow escaped the notice of Washington and Wall Street, which complained about “socialist” Syria and the country’s decidedly anti-neoliberal economic policies.

A Death Feud Heats Up With US Assistance

Mideast Syria

In late January 2011, a page was created on Facebook called The Syrian Revolution 2011. It announced that a “Day of Rage” would be held on February 4 and 5. [1] The protests “fizzled,” reported Time. The Day of Rage amounted to a Day of Indifference. Moreover, the connection to Syria was tenuous. Most of the chants shouted by the few protesters who attended were about Libya, demanding that Muammar Gaddafi—whose government was under siege by Islamist insurrectionists—step down. Plans were set for new protests on March 4 and March 5, but they too garnered little support. [2]

Time’s correspondent Rania Abouzeid attributed the failure of the protest organizers to draw significant support to the fact that most Syrians were not opposed to their government. Assad had a favorable reputation, especially among the two-thirds of the population under 30 years of age, and his government’s policies were widely supported. “Even critics concede that Assad is popular and considered close to the country’s huge youth cohort, both emotionally, ideologically and, of course, chronologically,” Abouzeid reported, adding that unlike “the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” Assad, in other words, had legitimacy. The Time correspondent added that Assad’s “driving himself to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low security profile” had “helped to endear him, personally, to the public.” [3]

This depiction of the Syrian president—a leader endeared to the public, ideologically in sync with popular Syrian sentiment—clashed starkly with the discourse that would emerge shortly after the eruption of violent protests in the Syrian town of Daraa less than two weeks later, and would become implanted in the discourse of US leftists, including Draitser. But on the eve of the signal Daraa events, Syria was being remarked upon for its quietude. No one “expects mass uprisings in Syria,” Abouzeid reported, “and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate.” [4] A Syrian youth told Time: “There is a lot of government help for the youth. They give us free books, free schools, free universities.” (Hardly the picture of the neo-liberal state Draitser paints.) She continued: “Why should there be a revolution? There’s maybe a one percent chance.” [5] The New York Times shared this view. Syria, the newspaper reported, “seemed immune to the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.” [6] Syria was distemper-free.

But on March 17, there was a violent uprising in Daraa. There are conflicting accounts of who or what sparked it. Time reported that the “rebellion in Daraa was provoked by the arrest of a handful of youths for daubing a wall with anti-regime graffiti.” [7] The Independent’s Robert Fisk offered a slightly different version. He reported that “government intelligence officers beat and killed several boys who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on the walls of the city.” [8] Another account holds that the factor that sparked the uprising in Daraa that day was extreme and disproportionate use of force by Syrian security forces in response to demonstrations against the boys’ arrest. There “were some youngsters printing some graffiti on the wall, and they were imprisoned, and as their parents wanted them back, the security forces really struck back very, very tough.” [9] Another account, from the Syrian government, denies that any of this happened. Five years after the event, Assad told an interviewer that it “didn’t happen. It was only propaganda. I mean, we heard about them, we never saw those children that have been taken to prison that time. So, it was only a fallacious narrative.”[10]

But if there was disagreement about what sparked the uprising, there was little disagreement that the uprising was violent. The New York Times reported that “Protesters set fire to the ruling Ba’ath Party’s headquarters and other government buildings…and clashed with police….In addition to the party headquarters, protesters burned the town’s main courthouse and a branch of the SyriaTel phone company.” [11] Time added that protesters set fire to the governor’s office, as well as to a branch office of a second cellphone company. [12] The Syrian government’s news agency, SANA, posted photographs of burning vehicles on its Web site. [13] Clearly, this wasn’t a peaceful demonstration, as it would be later depicted. Nor was it a mass uprising. Time reported that the demonstrators numbered in the hundreds, not thousands or tens of thousands. [14]

Assad reacted immediately to the Daraa ructions, announcing “a series of reforms, including a salary increase for public workers, greater freedom for the news media and political parties, and a reconsideration of the emergency rule,” [15] a war-time restriction on political and civil liberties, invoked because Syria was officially at war with Israel. Before the end of April, the government would rescind “the country’s 48-year-old emergency law” and abolish “the Supreme State Security Court.” [16]

Why did the government make these concessions? Because that’s what the Daraa protesters demanded. Protesters “gathered in and around Omari mosque in Daraa, chanting their demands: the release of all political prisoners…the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption.” [17] These demands were consistent with the call, articulated in early February on The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page “to end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.” [18] A demand to release all political prisoners was also made in a letter signed by clerics posted on Facebook. The clerics’ demands included lifting the “state of emergency law, releasing all political detainees, halting harassment by the security forces and combating corruption.” [19] Releasing political detainees would amount to releasing jihadists, or, to use a designation current in the West, “terrorists.” The State Department had acknowledged that political Islam was the main opposition in Syria [20]; jihadists made up the principal section of oppositionists likely to be incarcerated. Clerics demanding that Damascus release all political prisoners was equal in effect to the Islamic State demanding that Washington, Paris, and London release all Islamists detained in US, French and British prisons on terrorism charges. This wasn’t a demand for jobs and greater democracy, but a demand for the release from prison of activists inspired by the goal of bringing about an Islamic state in Syria. The call to lift the emergency law, similarly, appeared to have little to do with fostering democracy and more to do with expanding the room for jihadists and their collaborators to organize opposition to the secular state.

A week after the outbreak of violence in Daraa, Time’s Rania Abouzeid reported that “there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President.” [21] Indeed, the demands issued by the protesters and clerics had not included calls for Assad to step down. And Syrians were rallying to Assad. “There were counterdemonstrations in the capital in support of the President,” [22] reportedly far exceeding in number the hundreds of protesters who turned out in Daraa to burn buildings and cars and clash with police. [23]

By April 9—less than a month after the Daraa events—Time reported that a string of protests had broken out and that Islam was playing a prominent role in them. For anyone who was conversant with the decades-long succession of strikes, demonstrations, riots, and insurrections the Muslim Brotherhood had organized against what it deemed the “infidel” Ba’athist government, this looked like history repeating itself. The protests weren‘t reaching a critical mass. On the contrary, the government continued to enjoy “the loyalty” of “a large part of the population,” reported Time. [24]

Islamists played a lead role in drafting the Damascus Declaration in the mid-2000s, which demanded regime change. [25] In 2007, the Muslim Brothers, the archetypal Sunni political Islamist movement, which inspired Al-Qaeda and its progeny, Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State, teamed up with a former Syrian vice-president to found the National Salvation Front. The front met frequently with the US State Department and the US National Security Council, as well as with the US government-funded Middle East Partnership Initiative, [26] which did openly what the CIA once did covertly, namely, funnel money and expertise to fifth columnists in countries whose governments Washington opposed.

By 2009, just two years before the eruption of unrest throughout the Arab world, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood denounced the Arab nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad as a foreign and hostile element in Syrian society which needed to be eliminated. According to the group’s thinking, the Alawite community, to which Assad belonged, and which the Brothers regarded as heretics, used secular Arab nationalism as a cover to furtively advance a sectarian agenda to destroy Syria from within by oppressing “true” (i.e., Sunni) Muslims. In the name of Islam, the heretical regime would have to be overthrown. [27]

A mere three months before the 2011 outbreak of violence in Syria, scholar Liad Porat wrote a brief for the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, based at Brandeis University. “The movement’s leaders,” the scholar concluded, “continue to voice their hope for a civil revolt in Syria, wherein ‘the Syrian people will perform its duty and liberate Syria from the tyrannical and corrupt regime.’” The Brotherhood stressed that it was engaged in a fight to the death with the secular Arab nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad. A political accommodation with the government was impossible because its leaders were not part of the Sunni Muslim Syrian nation. Membership in the Syrian nation was limited to true Muslims, the Brothers contended, and not Alawite heretics who embraced such foreign un-Islamic creeds as secular Arab nationalism. [28]

That the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood played a key role in the uprising that erupted three months later was confirmed in 2012 by the US Defense Intelligence Agency. A leaked report from the agency said that the insurgency was sectarian and led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State. The report went on to say that the insurgents were supported by the West, Arab Gulf oil monarchies and Turkey. The analysis correctly predicted the establishment of a “Salafist principality,” an Islamic state, in Eastern Syria, noting that this was desired by the insurgency’s foreign backers, who wanted to see the secular Arab nationalists isolated and cut-off from Iran. [29]

Documents prepared by US Congress researchers in 2005 revealed that the US government was actively weighing regime change in Syria long before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, challenging the view that US support for the Syrian rebels was based on allegiance to a “democratic uprising” and showing that it was simply an extension of a long-standing policy of seeking to topple the government in Damascus. Indeed, the researchers acknowledged that the US government’s motivation to overthrow the secular Arab nationalist government in Damascus was unrelated to democracy promotion in the Middle East. In point of fact, they noted that Washington’s preference was for secular dictatorships (Egypt) and monarchies (Jordan and Saudi Arabia.) The impetus for pursuing regime change, according to the researchers, was a desire to sweep away an impediment to the achievement of US goals in the Middle East related to strengthening Israel, consolidating US domination of Iraq, and fostering open market, free enterprise economies. Democracy was never a consideration. [30] If Assad was promoting neo-liberal policies in Syria, as Draitser contends, it’s difficult to understand why Washington cited Syria’s refusal to embrace the US agenda of open markets and free enterprise as a reason to change Syria’s government.

To underscore the point that the protests lacked broad popular support, on April 22, more than a month after the Daraa riot, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid reported that “the protests, so far, seemed to fall short of the popular upheaval of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.” In other words, more than a month after only hundreds—and not thousands or tens of thousands—of protesters rioted in Daraa, there was no sign in Syria of a popular Arab Spring upheaval. The uprising remained a limited, prominently, Islamist affair. By contrast, there had been huge demonstrations in Damascus in support of—not against—the government, Assad remained popular, and, according to Shadid, the government commanded the loyalty of “Christian and heterodox Muslim sects.” [31] Shadid wasn’t the only Western journalist who reported that Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians were strongly backing the government. Times’ Rania Abouzeid observed that the Ba’athists “could claim the backing of Syria’s substantial minority groups.” [32]

The reality that the Syrian government commanded the loyalty of Christian and heterodox Muslim sects, as the New York Times’ Shadid reported, suggested that Syria’s religious minorities recognized something about the uprising that the Western press under-reported (and revolutionary socialists in the United States missed), namely, that it was driven by a sectarian Sunni Islamist agenda which, if brought to fruition, would have unpleasant consequences for anyone who wasn’t considered a “true” Muslim. For this reason, Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians lined up with the Ba’athists who sought to bridge sectarian divisions as part of their programmatic commitment to fostering Arab unity. The slogan “Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut!” chanted during demonstrations in those early days” [33] only confirmed the point that the uprising was a continuation of the death feud that Sunni political Islam had vowed to wage against the secular Arab nationalist government, and was not a mass upheaval for democracy or against neo-liberalism. If indeed it was any of these things, how would we explain that a thirst for democracy and opposition to neo-liberalism were present only in the Sunni community and absent in those of religious minorities? Surely, a democratic deficit and neoliberal tyranny, if they were present at all and acted as triggers of a revolutionary upsurge, would have crossed religious lines. That Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Christians didn’t demonstrate, and that riots were Sunni-based with Islamist content, points strongly to the insurrection, from the very beginning, representing the recrudescence of the long running Sunni jihadist campaign against Ba’athist secularism.

“From the very beginning the Assad government said it was engaged in a fight with militant Islamists.” [34] The long history of Islamist uprisings against Ba’athism prior to 2011 certainly suggested this was very likely the case, and the way in which the uprising subsequently unfolded, as an Islamist-led war against the secular state, only strengthened the view. Other evidence, both positive and negative, corroborated Assad’s contention that the Syrian state was under attack by jihadists (just as it had been many other times in the past.) The negative evidence, that the uprising wasn’t a popular upheaval against an unpopular government, was inhered in Western media reports which showed that Syria’s Arab nationalist government was popular and commanded the loyalty of the population.

By contrast, anti-government demonstrations, riots and protests were small-scale, attracting far fewer people than did a mass demonstration in Damascus in support of the government, and certainly not on the order of the popular upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia. What’s more, the protesters’ demands centered on the release of political prisoners (mainly jihadists) and the lifting of war-time restrictions on the expression of political dissent, not calls for Assad to step down or change the government’s economic policies. The positive evidence came from Western news media accounts which showed that Islam played a prominent role in the riots. Also, while it was widely believed that armed Islamist groups only entered the fray subsequent to the initial spring 2011 riots—and in doing so “hijacked” a “popular uprising”— in point of fact, two jihadist groups which played a prominent role in the post-2011 armed revolt against secular Arab nationalism, Ahrar- al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, were both active at the beginning of 2011. Ahrar al-Sham “started working on forming brigades…well before mid-March, 2011, when the” Daraa riot occurred, according to Time. [35] Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, “was unknown until late January 2012, when it announced its formation… [but] it was active for months before then.” [36]

Another piece of evidence that is consistent with the view that militant Islam played a role in the uprisings very early on—or, at the very least, that the protests were violent from the beginning—is that `”there were signs from the very start that armed groups were involved.” The journalist and author Robert Fisk recalled seeing a tape from “the very early days of the ‘rising’ showing men with pistols and Kalashnikovs in a Daraa demonstration.” He recalls another event, in May 2011, when “an Al Jazeera crew filmed armed men shooting at Syrian troops a few hundred metres from the northern border with Lebanon but the channel declined to air the footage.” [37] Even US officials, who were hostile to the Syrian government and might be expected to challenge Damascus’s view that it was embroiled in a fight with armed rebels “acknowledged that the demonstrations weren’t peaceful and that some protesters were armed.” [38] By September, Syrian authorities were reporting that they had lost more than 500 police officers and soldiers, killed by guerillas. [39] By late October, the number had more than doubled. [40] In less than a year, the uprising had gone from the burning of Ba’ath Party buildings and government officers and clashes with police, to guerrilla warfare, involving methods that would be labeled “terrorism” were they undertaken against Western targets.

Assad would later complain that:

“Everything we said in Syria at the beginning of the crisis they say later. They said it’s peaceful, we said it’s not peaceful, they’re killing – these demonstrators, that they called them peaceful demonstrators – have killed policemen. Then it became militants. They said yes, it’s militants. We said it’s militants, it’s terrorism. They said no, it’s not terrorism. Then when they say it’s terrorism, we say it’s Al Qaeda, they say no, it’s not Al Qaeda. So, whatever we said, they say later.” [41]

The “Syrian uprising,” wrote the Middle East specialist Patrick Seale, “should be seen as only the latest, if by far the most violent, episode in the long war between Islamists and Ba’athists, which dates back to the founding of the secular Ba‘ath Party in the 1940s. The struggle between them is by now little short of a death-feud.” [42] “It is striking,” Seale continued, citing Aron Lund, who had written a report for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs on Syrian Jihadism, “that virtually all the members of the various armed insurgent groups are Sunni Arabs; that the fighting has been largely restricted to Sunni Arab areas only, whereas areas inhabited by Alawis, Druze or Christians have remained passive or supportive of the regime; that defections from the regime are nearly 100 per cent Sunni; that money, arms and volunteers are pouring in from Islamic states or from pro-Islamic organisations and individuals; and that religion is the insurgent movement’s most important common denominator.” [43]

Brutality as a Trigger?

Is it reasonable to believe that the use of force by the Syrian state sparked the guerrilla war which broke out soon after?

It strains belief that an over-reaction by security forces to a challenge to government authority in the Syrian town of Daraa (if indeed an over-reaction occurred) could spark a major war, involving scores of states, and mobilizing jihadists from scores of countries. A slew of discordant facts would have to be ignored to begin to give this theory even a soupcon of credibility.

First, we would have to overlook the reality that the Assad government was popular and viewed as legitimate. A case might be made that an overbearing response by a highly unpopular government to a trivial challenge to its authority might have provided the spark that was needed to ignite a popular insurrection, but notwithstanding US president Barack Obama’s insistence that Assad lacked legitimacy, there’s no evidence that Syria, in March 2011, was a powder keg of popular anti-government resentment ready to explode. As Time’s Rania Abouzeid reported on the eve of the Daraa riot, “Even critics concede that Assad is popular” [44] and “no one expects mass uprisings in Syria and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate.” [45]

Second, we would have to discount the fact that the Daraa riot involved only hundreds of participants, hardly a mass uprising, and the protests that followed similarly failed to garner a critical mass, as Time’s Nicholas Blanford reported.[46] Similarly, the New York Times’ Anthony Shadid found no evidence that there was a popular upheaval in Syria, even more than a month after the Daraa riot.[47] What was going on, contrary to Washington-propagated rhetoric about the Arab Spring breaking out in Syria, was that jihadists were engaged in a campaign of guerilla warfare against Syrian security forces, and had, by October, taken the lives of more than a thousand police officers and soldiers.

Third, we would have to close our eyes to the fact that the US government, with its British ally, had drawn up plans in 1956 to provoke a war in Syria by enlisting the Muslim Brotherhood to instigate internal uprisings. [48] The Daraa riot and subsequent armed clashes with police and soldiers resembled the plan which regime change specialist Kermit Roosevelt had prepared. That’s not to say that the CIA dusted off Roosevelt’s proposal and recycled it for use in 2011; only that the plot showed that Washington and London were capable of planning a destabilization operation involving a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurrection to bring about regime change in Syria.

We would also have to ignore the events of February 1982, when the Muslim Brothers seized control of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city. Hama was the epicenter of Sunni fundamentalism in Syria, and a major base of operations for the jihadist fighters. Galvanized by a false report that Assad had been overthrown, Muslim Brothers went on a gleeful blood-soaked rampage throughout the city, attacking police stations and murdering Ba’ath Party leaders and their families, along with government officials and soldiers. In some cases, victims were decapitated [49] a practice which would be resurrected decades later by Islamic State fighters. Every Ba’athist official in Hama was murdered. [50]

The Hama events of 1982 are usually remembered in the West (if they’re remembered at all), not for the atrocities carried out by the Islamists, but for the Syrian army’s response, which, as would be expected of any army, involved the use of force to restore sovereign control over the territory seized by the insurrectionists. Thousands of troops were dispatched to take Hama back from the Muslim Brothers. Former US State Department official William R. Polk described the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on Hama as resembling that of the US assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, [51] (the difference, of course, being that the Syrian army was acting legitimately within its own sovereign territory while the US military was acting illegitimately as an occupying force to quell opposition to its occupation.) How many died in the Hama assault, however, remains a matter of dispute. The figures vary. “An early report in Time said that 1,000 were killed. Most observers estimated that 5,000 people died. Israeli sources and the Muslim Brotherhood”—sworn enemies of the secular Arab nationalists who therefore had an interest in exaggerating the casualty toll—“both charged that the death toll passed 20,000.” [52] Robert Dreyfus, who has written on the West’s collaboration with political Islam, argues that Western sources deliberately exaggerated the death toll in order to demonize the Ba’athists as ruthless killers, and that the Ba’athists went along with the deception in order to intimidate the Muslim Brotherhood. [53]

As the Syrian army sorted through the rubble of Hama in the aftermath of the assault, evidence was found that foreign governments had provided Hama’s insurrectionists with money, arms, and communications equipment. Polk writes that:

“Assad saw foreign troublemakers at work among his people. This, after all, was the emotional and political legacy of colonial rule—a legacy painfully evident in most of the post-colonial world, but one that is almost unnoticed in the Western world. And the legacy is not a myth. It is a reality that, often years after events occur, we can verify with official papers. Hafez al-Assad did not need to wait for leaks of documents: his intelligence services and international journalists turned up dozens of attempts by conservative, oil-rich Arab countries, the United States, and Israel to subvert his government. Most engaged in ‘dirty tricks,’ propaganda, or infusions of money, but it was noteworthy that in the 1982 Hama uprising, more than 15,000 foreign-supplied machine guns were captured, along with prisoners including Jordanian- and CIA-trained paramilitary forces (much like the jihadists who appear so much in media accounts of 2013 Syria). And what he saw in Syria was confirmed by what he learned about Western regime-changing elsewhere. He certainly knew of the CIA attempt to murder President Nasser of Egypt and the Anglo-American overthrow of the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.” [54]

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that “the Hama massacre could be understood as, ‘The natural reaction of a modernizing politician in a relatively new nation state trying to stave off retrogressive—in this case, Islamic fundamentalists—elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved in the way of building Syria into a 20th century secular republic. That is also why,” continued Friedman, that “if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among Sunni Muslims.” [55]

The outbreak of a Sunni Islamist jihad against the Syrian government in the 1980s challenges the view that militant Sunni Islam in the Levant is an outcome of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the pro-Shi’a sectarian policies of the US occupation authorities. This view is historically myopic, blind to the decades-long existence of Sunni political Islam as a significant force in Levantine politics. From the moment Syria achieved formal independence from France after World War II, through the decades that followed in the 20th century, and into the next century, the main contending forces in Syria were secular Arab nationalism and political Islam. As journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in 2016, “the Syrian armed opposition is dominated by Isis, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.” The “only alternative to (secular Arab nationalist) rule is the Islamists.” [56] This has long been the case.

Finally, we would also have to ignore the fact that US strategists had planned since 2003, and possibly as early as 2001, to force Assad and his secular Arab nationalist ideology from power, and was funding the Syrian opposition, including Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups, from 2005. Accordingly, Washington had been driving toward the overthrow of the Assad government with the goal of de-Ba’athifying Syria. An Islamist-led guerilla struggle against Syria’s secular Arab nationalists would have unfolded, regardless of whether the Syrian government’s response at Daraa was excessive or not. The game was already in play, and a pretext was being sought. Daraa provided it. Thus, the idea that the arrest of two boys in Daraa for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall could provoke a major conflict is as believable as the notion that WWI was caused by nothing more than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Socialist Syria

Syria Peace Sign

Socialism can be defined in many ways, but if it is defined as public-ownership of the commanding heights of the economy accompanied by economic planning, then Syria under its 1973 and 2012 constitutions clearly meets the definition of socialism. However, the Syrian Arab Republic had never been a working-class socialist state, of the category Marxists would recognize. It was, instead, an Arab socialist state inspired by the goal of achieving Arab political independence and overcoming the legacy of the Arab nation’s underdevelopment. The framers of the constitution saw socialism as a means to achieve national liberation and economic development. “The march toward the establishment of a socialist order,” the 1973 constitution’s framers wrote, is a “fundamental necessity for mobilizing the potentialities of the Arab masses in their battle with Zionism and imperialism.” Marxist socialism concerned itself with the struggle between an exploiting owning class and exploited working class, while Arab socialism addressed the struggle between exploiting and exploited nations. While these two different socialisms operated at different levels of exploitation, the distinctions were of no moment for Westerns banks, corporations and major investors as they cast their gaze across the globe in pursuit of profit. Socialism was against the profit-making interests of US industrial and financial capital, whether it was aimed at ending the exploitation of the working class or overcoming the imperialist oppression of national groups.

Ba’ath socialism had long irritated Washington. The Ba’athist state had exercised considerable influence over the Syrian economy, through ownership of enterprises, subsidies to privately-owned domestic firms, limits on foreign investment, and restrictions on imports. The Ba’athists regarded these measures as necessary economic tools of a post-colonial state trying to wrest its economic life from the grips of former colonial powers and to chart a course of development free from the domination of foreign interests.

Washington’s goals, however, were obviously antithetical. It didn’t want Syria to nurture its industry and zealously guard its independence, but to serve the interests of the bankers and major investors who truly mattered in the United States, by opening Syrian labor to exploitation and Syria’s land and natural resources to foreign ownership. Our agenda, the Obama Administration had declared in 2015, “is focused on lowering tariffs on American products, breaking down barriers to our goods and services, and setting higher standards to level the playing field for American…firms.”[57] This was hardly a new agenda, but had been the agenda of US foreign policy for decades. Damascus wasn’t falling into line behind a Washington that insisted that it could and would “lead the global economy.”[58]

Hardliners in Washington had considered Hafez al-Assad an Arab communist, [59] and US officials considered his son, Bashar, an ideologue who couldn’t bring himself to abandon the third pillar of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party’s program: socialism. The US State Department complained that Syria had “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, had failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The US State Department also expressed dissatisfaction that “ideological reasons” had prevented Assad from liberalizing Syria’s economy, that “privatization of government enterprises was still not widespread,” and that the economy “remains highly controlled by the government.” [60] Clearly, Assad hadn’t learned what Washington had dubbed the “lessons of history,” namely, that “market economies, not command-and-control economies with the heavy hand of government, are the best.” [61] By drafting a constitution that mandated that the government maintain a role in guiding the economy on behalf of Syrian interests, and that the Syrian government would not make Syrians work for the interests of Western banks, corporations, and investors, Assad was asserting Syrian independence against Washington’s agenda of “opening markets and leveling the playing field for American….businesses abroad.” [62]

On top of this, Assad underscored his allegiance to socialist values against what Washington had once called the “moral imperative” of “economic freedom,” [63] by writing social rights into the constitution: security against sickness, disability and old age; access to health care; and free education at all levels. These rights would continue to be placed beyond the easy reach of legislators and politicians who could sacrifice them on the altar of creating a low-tax, foreign-investment-friendly business climate. As a further affront against Washington’s pro-business orthodoxy, the constitution committed the state to progressive taxation.

Finally, the Ba’athist leader included in his updated constitution a provision that had been introduced by his father in 1973, a step toward real, genuine democracy—a provision which decision-makers in Washington, with their myriad connections to the banking and corporate worlds, could hardly tolerate. The constitution would require that at minimum half the members of the People’s Assembly be drawn from the ranks of peasants and workers.

If Assad was a neo-liberal, he certainly was one of the world’s oddest devotees of the ideology.

Drought?

A final point on the origins of the violent uprising in 2011: Some social scientists and analysts have drawn on a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to suggest that “drought played a role in the Syrian unrest.” According to this view, drought “caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas.” This, in combination with an influx of refugees from Iraq, intensified competition for scarce jobs in urban areas, making Syria a cauldron of social and economic tension ready to boil over. [64] The argument sounds reasonable, even “scientific,” but the phenomenon it seeks to explain—mass upheaval in Syria—never happened. As we’ve seen, a review of Western press coverage found no reference to mass upheaval. On the contrary, reporters who expected to find a mass upheaval were surprised that they didn’t find one. Instead, Western journalists found Syria to be surprisingly quiet. Demonstrations called by organizers of the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page fizzled. Critics conceded that Assad was popular. Reporters could find no one who believed a revolt was imminent. Even a month after the Daraa incident—which involved only hundreds of protesters, dwarfed by the tens of thousands of Syrians who demonstrated in Damascus in support of the government—the New York Times reporter on the ground, Anthony Shadid, could find no sign in Syria of the mass upheavals of Tunisia and Egypt. In early February 2011, “Omar Nashabe, a long-time Syria watcher and correspondent for the Beirut-based Arabic daily Al-Ahkbar” told Time that “Syrians may be afflicted by poverty that stalks 14% of its population combined with an estimated 20% unemployment rate, but Assad still has his credibility.” [65]

That the government commanded popular support was affirmed when the British survey firm YouGov published a poll in late 2011 showing that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. The poll received almost no mention in the Western media, prompting the British journalist Jonathan Steele to ask: “Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favor of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news?” Steele described the poll findings as “inconvenient facts” which were” suppressed “because Western media coverage of the events in Syria had ceased “to be fair” and had turned into “a propaganda weapon.”[66]

Sloganeering in Lieu of Politics and Analysis

Draitser can be faulted, not only for propagating an argument made by assertion, based on no evidence, but for substituting slogans for politics and analysis. In his October 20 Counterpunch article, Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence, he argues that the defining goals of Leftism ought to be the pursuit of peace and justice, as if these are two inseparable qualities, which are never in opposition. That peace and justice may, at times, be antithetical, is illustrated in the following conversation between Australian journalist Richard Carleton and Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer, novelist and revolutionary. [67]

C: ‘Why won’t your organization engage in peace talks with the Israelis?’

K: ‘You don’t mean exactly “peace talks”. You mean capitulation. Surrendering.

C: ‘Why not just talk?’

K: ‘Talk to whom?’

C: ‘Talk to the Israeli leaders.’

K: ‘That is kind of a conversation between the sword and the neck, you mean?’

C: ‘Well, if there are no swords and no guns in the room, you could still talk.’

K: ‘No. I have never seen any talk between a colonialist and a national liberation movement.’

C: ‘But despite this, why not talk?’

K: ‘Talk about what?’

C: ‘Talk about the possibility of not fighting.’

K: ‘Not fighting for what?’

C: ‘No fighting at all. No matter what for.’

K: ‘People usually fight for something. And they stop fighting for something. So you can’t even tell me why we should speak about what. Why should we talk about stopping to fight?’

C: ‘Talk to stop fighting to stop the death and the misery, the destruction and the pain.’

K: ‘The misery and the destruction the pain and the death of whom?’

C: ‘Of Palestinians. Of Israelis. Of Arabs.’

K: ‘Of the Palestinian people who are uprooted, thrown in the camps, living in starvation, killed for twenty years and forbidden to use even the name “Palestinians”?’

C: ‘They are better that way than dead though.’

K: ‘Maybe to you. But to us, it’s not. To us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights is something as essential as life itself.

To which values the US Left should devote itself when peace and justice are in conflict, Draitser doesn’t say. His invocation of the slogan “peace and justice” as the desired defining mission of the US Left seems to be nothing more than an invitation for Leftists to abandon politics in favor of embarking on a mission of becoming beautiful souls, above the sordid conflicts which plague humanity—never taking a side, except that of the angels. His assertion that “no state or group has the best interests of Syrians at heart” is almost too silly to warrant comment. How would he know? One can’t help but get the impression that he believes that he, and the US Left, alone among the groups and states of the world, know what’s best for the “Syrian people.” Which may be why he opines that the responsibility of the US Left, “is to the people of Syria,” as if the people of Syria are an undifferentiated mass with uniform interests and agendas. Syrians en masse include both secularists and political Islamists, who have irreconcilable views of how the state ought to be organized, who have been locked in a death feud for more than half a century—one helped along, on the Islamist side, by his own government. Syrians en masse include those who favor integration into the US Empire, and those who are against it; those who collaborate with US imperialists and those who refuse to. In this perspective, what does it mean, to say the US Left has a responsibility to the people of Syria? Which people of Syria?

I would have thought that the responsibility of the US Left is to working people of the United States, not the people of Syria. And I would have imagined, as well, that the US Left would regard its responsibilities to include disseminating a rigorous, evidence-based political analysis of how the US economic elite uses the apparatus of the US state to advance its interests at the expense of both domestic and foreign populations. How does Washington’s long war on Syria affect the working people of America? That’s what Draitser ought to be talking about.

My book Washington’s Long War on Syria is forthcoming April 2017.

Image result for syria

NOTES

1 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011

2 Rania Abouzeid, “The Syrian style of repression: Thugs and lectures,” Time, February 27, 2011

3 Rania Abouzeid, “Sitting pretty in Syria: Why few go backing Bashar,” Time, March 6, 2011

4 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011.

5 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011

6 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011

7 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?,” Time, April 9, 2011

8 Robert Fisk, “Welcome to Dera’a, Syria’s graveyard of terrorists,” The Independent, July 6. 2016

9 President Assad to ARD TV: Terrorists breached cessation of hostilities agreement from the very first hour, Syrian Army refrained from retaliating,” SANA, March 1, 2016

10 Ibid

11 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011

12 Rania Abouzeid, “Arab Spring: Is a revolution starting up in Syria?” Time, March 20, 2011; Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s revolt: How graffiti stirred an uprising,” Time, March 22, 2011

13 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011

14 Rania Abouzeid, “Arab Spring: Is a revolution starting up in Syria?,” Time, March 20, 2011

15 “Thousands march to protest Syria killings”, The New York Times, March 24, 2011

16 Rania Abouzeid, “Assad and reform: Damned if he does, doomed if he doesn’t,” Time, April 22, 2011

17 “Officers fire on crowd as Syrian protests grow,” The New York Times, March 20, 2011

18 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011

19 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011.

20 Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005

21 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011

22 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011

23 “Syrie: un autre eclarage du conflict qui dure depuis 5 ans, BeCuriousTV , » May 23, 2016, http://www.globalresearch.ca/syria-aleppo-doctor-demolishes-imperialist-propaganda-and-media-warmongering/5531157

24 Nicholas Blanford, “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011

25 Jay Solomon, “To check Syria, U.S. explores bond with Muslim Brothers,” The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2007

26 Ibid

27 Liad Porat, “The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Asad Regime,” Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, December 2010, No. 47

28 Ibid

29 http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf

30 Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005.

31 Anthony Shadid, “Security forces kill dozens in uprisings around Syria”, The New York Times, April 22, 2011

32 Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Friday of dignity becomes a day of death,” Time, March 25, 2011

33 Fabrice Balanche, “The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis Middle East Institute, May 14, 2015

34 Anthony Shadid, “Syria broadens deadly crackdown on protesters”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011

35 Rania Abouzeid, “Meet the Islamist militants fighting alongside Syria’s rebels,” Time, July 26, 2012

36 Rania Abouzeid, “Interview with official of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Islamist militia group,” Time, Dec 25, 2015

37 Robert Fisk, “Syrian civil war: West failed to factor in Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian backers as the conflict developed,” The Independent, March 13, 2016

38 Anthony Shadid, “Syria broadens deadly crackdown on protesters”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011

39 Nada Bakri, “Syria allows Red Cross officials to visit prison”, The New York Times, September 5, 2011

40 Nada Bakri, “Syrian opposition calls for protection from crackdown”, The New York Times, October 25, 2011

41 President al-Assad to Portuguese State TV: International system failed to accomplish its duty… Western officials have no desire to combat terrorism, SANA, March 5, 2015

42 Patrick Seale, “Syria’s long war,” Middle East Online, September 26, 2012

43 Ibid

44 Rania Abouzeid, “Sitting pretty in Syria: Why few go backing Bashar,” Time, March 6, 2011

45 Rania Abouzeid, “The youth of Syria: the rebels are on pause,” Time, March 6, 2011

46 “Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?” Time, April 9, 2011

47 Anthony Shadid, “Security forces kill dozens in uprisings around Syria”, The New York Times, April 22, 2011

48 Ben Fenton, “Macmillan backed Syria assassination plot,” The Guardian, September 27, 2003

49 Robert Fisk, “Conspiracy of silence in the Arab world,” The Independent, February 9, 2007

50 Robert Dreyfus, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Fundamentalist Islam, Holt, 2005, p. 205

51 William R. Polk, “Understanding Syria: From pre-civil war to post-Assad,” The Atlantic, December 10, 2013

52 Dreyfus

53 Dreyfus

54 William R. Polk, “Understanding Syria: From pre-civil war to post-Assad,” The Atlantic, December 10, 2013

55 Quoted in Nikolas Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’ath Party, I.B. Taurus, 2011

56 Patrick Cockburn, “Confused about the US response to Isis in Syria? Look to the CIA’s relationship with Saudi Arabia,” The Independent, June 17, 2016

57 National Security Strategy, February 2015

58 Ibid

59 Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Three Rivers Press, 2003, p. 123

60 US State Department website. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm#econ. Accessed February 8, 2012

61 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002

62 National Security Strategy, February 2015

63 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, March 2006

64 Henry Fountain, “Researchers link Syrian conflict to drought made worse by climate change,” The New York Times, March 2, 2015

65 Aryn Baker, “Syria is not Egypt, but might it one day be Tunisia?,” Time, February 4, 2011

66 Jonathan Steele, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media,” The Guardian, January 17, 2012

67 “Full transcript: Classic video interview with Comrade Ghassan Kanafani re-surfaces,” PFLP, October 17, 2016, http://pflp.ps/english/2016/10/17/full-transcript-classic-video-interview-with-comrade-ghassan-kanafani-re-surfaces/

Categories
UNCATEGORIZED

Immigration: Critical Readings on the buzzword of 2016

2016 was a year of disruptions, collapses, and reactions and nothing embodied this more than the dominance of discussions around immigration, and the resurgence of the right-wing in the United States and Europe under the auspices of controlling a migrant crisis which threatened the survivability of the State and its citizen-subjects alike.

eu-poll-immigration-as-top-concern-2Many readers might think of the rhetoric of Trump and nod in understanding, but this is even more pronounced in EU member states, where concerns about broadly-framed immigration surged to the top of the domestic public’s list of concerns. The attached graph shows the six most frequently mentioned concerns among Brits leading up to Brexit. Note the shift from “economic situation” to “immigration”.

However, I think it is wrong to chock this up purely to xenophobia and some sort of nebulous hatred for the “other” among the populaces of the captialist centers (though such attitudes are certainly cultivated and exploited to varrying extents). In acknowledgement that immigration is a complex, dynamic component to an equaly complex worldwide capitalist system, I am sharing three choice links which I believe stimulate critical thought on the topic of immigration. As both a student of critical social sciences and as someone who exists within the milleu of “migrant justice” activism, it is my hope that this topic is handled delicately by those concerned with justice and dignity for the masses of the world, perhaps these works will help.

(1) PRO-IMMIGRATION ACTIVISTS IN THE WEST MISS THE POINT 

by Nemequene Tundama

While these pro-immigration movements are indeed helpful and necessary in the short-term they also neglect the background story and therefore tend to reinforce Western-centric narratives in the long-term. Narratives that fundamentally portray us migrants and refugees as people to be saved from what is ‘self-inflicted barbaric’ conditions back home. Narratives that entertain the idea that the solution lies in the West’s reaction to the ‘crisis’ rather than in destroying its cunning parasitism that lies at its source.

Here, Nemequence Tundama provides a salient critique of pro-immigration movments in the “west” (i.e. the global centers of capital – Canada, the United States, and western Europe) and their relation to imperialism. They argue that such movements have a tendency to erase the role that imperialism plays in creating mass migration and refugee crises, helping reproduce colonial attitudes of superiority among liberal, cosmopolitan professionals who have the resources to co-opt these solidarity movements as they exist now.

Nemequene Tundama is an anti-imperialist activist based in London, UK, originally from Muisca Territory, Colombia. They are currently working on organising an anti-imperialist study group in London. If interested in this study group or for other inquiries, Nemequene can be reached at nemequenetundama@gmail.com.

(2)IMMIGRATION AND CAPITAL (series)

by Maximillian C. Forte

Immigration, rightly or wrongly, has been marched to the frontline of current political struggles in Europe and North America. Whether exaggerated or accurate, the role of immigration is situated as a central factor in the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rise of the “America First” Trump movement in the US. It seems impossible that one can have a calm discussion about immigration today, without all sorts of agendas, assumptions, insinuations and recriminations coming into play. Staking a claim in immigration debates are a wide range of actors and interests, with everything from national identity and national security to multiculturalism, human rights, and cosmopolitan globalism. However, what is relatively neglected in the public debates is discussion of the political economy of immigration, and especially a critique of the role of immigration in sustaining capitalism.

 

This work introduces a critique of immigration discourse in relation to capitalism and the role immigration can play in sustaining a capitalist, imperialist world-system through acting as a “safety valve” for collapsing neo-colonial regimes or flooding markets with cheap labor so as to drive down the wages of domestic workers. Forte expands this critique in two other posts (linked below) discussing the liberal ideology of “immigrationism” which serves to silence discussions about the causes and effects of the current worldwide migrant crisis. Forte also disects popular accompanying buzzwords to immigration such as “undocumented” or “illegal immigrant” which serve to polarize politics, particularly US politics, without offering real solutions to either migrants or domestic workers.

Max Forte, who’s work has be shared and cited frequently on this blog, teaches full time in Anthropology and Sociology at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec. He is the author of numerous books as well as the publisher of  The New Imperialism series, which features research by students in his advanced seminar as well as his own research. He tweets at @ZeroAnthro and can be reached for inquiries at max.forte@openanthropology.org

(3) SOUTH OF THE WALL

by Matthew Hayes

Yet, Trump’s election also reproduces the conditions of political polarization and economic vulnerability that has helped spur a migration flow of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens to Ecuador over the last decade. As the impact of North-South migration to locations in lower cost Latin American countries leads to various forms of transnational gentrification, and even land expropriation and displacement, they also risk reproducing the poverty and dislocation that are often at the heart families’ decisions to send loved ones across the border to the North – any way they can.

Here, Matthew Hayes explores the contradicitions of immigration discourse by contrasting the position of Ecuadorian migrant workers in the United States (“Cuencanos”) and the large expatriate community in Ecuador, which is primarily of white, North American origin. Hayes suggests that immigration, rather than simply poor migrants coming to wealthy states, is instead a more dynamic system of moving capital and labor around the world, leading to “globalized gentrification”.

Matthew Hayes is an Associate Professor and has been with the Saint Thomas department of sociology in Fredericton, New Brunswick, since 2009 and is a colleague of mine at the NB Media Co-op. His current research is on North-to-South migration, particularly expatriates from North America living in Ecuador.He tweets at @matthewfhayes and can be reached for inquiries mhayes@stu.ca

Categories
UNCATEGORIZED

#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.

Image may contain: text

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

fidelspeaks

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:

cuba_and_its_neighbours

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.

Categories
USA

Syria to Standing Rock: Everywhere is a No-Fly Zone

“Every single Empire in its official discourse has said that it is not at all like the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there is always a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming word about benign or altruistic empires, is if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilizartice” — Edward Said

I do not think any pundit or critic, even those committed to the causes of indigenous people, could have anticipated that the confrontation over the Dakota Access Pipeline would play such a prominent role in political discourse, especially in light of the blackout by major media. Yet, the people gathered at Standing Rock have overcome numerous obstacles to catapult their struggle to the limelight.

After numerous treaties, historical reviews, truth and reconciliation commissions, protests, policy consultations, and outbreaks of rebellion, Indigenous people in Turtle Island/ North America are still brutalized in spectacular fashion, and they are granted no recourse – even the most basic of treaty laws are ignored or “lost” not unlike how the United States, Canada, and other accomplices to NATO blatantly violate international law.

The Imperial Connection

Let me put it frankly and simply, America is an Empire and not, in any quantifiable sense, a  Democracy. While most everyday “Americans” experience the unfairness, aloofness, and ridiculousness of the American capitalist and imperialist system to some extent or another, none experience it more blatantly than the nationalities America has colonized. Within American borders there are the Dene, the Lakotah, the Irqouois, and hundreds of other nations I do not have the time to name. Beyond American borders, we can include in this Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, and numerous other peoples dominated by US financial and military might by direct or indirect means.

Image result for hands off syria

As this empire stretches itself further across the globe, it experiences crises and strangulation, prompting the need for more intense exploitation and violence at home to facilitate and legitimize the next expansion. The US has long been set on regime change in Syria, for example, but has experienced a number of setbacks in what they thought would otherwise be a swift victory. It is in this context that we see a rushed, desperate attempt to force “development” of the American “homeland” at the expense of the actual Indigenous population

The Hypocrisy of the No-Fly Zone

Image result for standing rock protests

Forte describes the logic of regime change discourse, used systematically to advocate for no-fly zones and invasions across the world, best embodied by the assault on Libya (Forte, 2013) but now equally applicable to Syria, which Hillary Clinton has slated for being the next No-fly Zone, without regard for how many Syrians it will lead to their demise.

1) Moral Dualism: We see this in the vilification and dehumanization of resisters and land defenders; the persistence of the “savage” image in mass media, the depiction of land defenders as inherently backwards (as if destroying the environment is not violently backwards!). Yet somehow US imperialism is benevolent.

2) Moral Narcissism: The hypocrisies of settler-colonialism and imperialism are on full display. While the US government rains drone strikes on the colonized world and sanctions the right of armed gangs of whites to lay claims to stolen land, peaceful protesters are seen as such as threat as to incur brutal violence and imprisonment.

3) Demonization: Again, the image of the “savage” or the “indian” or more recently the “security threat” rears its ugly head when Indigenous people break into the media cycle.

We have seen military tactics and deployments used to further internal colonialism in the United States before, most notably in the military’s role in the evacuation of New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. The United States military blatantly discriminated against black evacuees, preferring whiter, wealthier victims to save, yet the despondency of black communities in New Orleans today is treated as a product of “natural disaster” (the hurricane) rather than the product of discriminatory responses to that crisis (Noel, 2013). Years from now, I wonder if the environmental destruction of the Standing Rock territory by the Dakota Access Pipeline will be recorded as the result of “natural” causes.

The pipeline resisters at standing rock have also been subject to a no-fly zone not unlike the one visited on Libya and perhaps soon on Syria. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has restricted flights, banned the use of drones within a radius of about four-and-a-half miles of Cannon Ball. Only aircraft affiliated with the North Dakota Tactical Operation Center are allowed within the restricted airspace. The flight restriction is scheduled to  last until November 5. This is a blackout in anticipation for an “invasion” of the protester camp.

For Canadians: We Are Not Innocent

It would be easy for Canadians to attribute the violence at Standing Rock to just another case in the gargantuan farce called an election that the United States insists is democratic and legitimate while its order collapses at focal points along its chain of authority. But Canada, like the United States, is a Settler-Colonial society, founded on the same genocide and conquest which gave rise to the Pax Americana Empire in the first place. Our own indigenous population is brutalized, policed, imprisoned, and dispossessed in much the same manner as the peoples at Standing Rock. We should note the courage and intensity of resistance required by the people of Standing Rock and their allies when our own pipelines are prepared to be laid.

Unlinked Citations

Forte, C. Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa. 

Noel, A. “America’s Own Backyard: Hurricane Katrina and Military Intervention” Emergency as Security: Liberal Empire at Home and Abroad. (New Imperialism, Vol. 3). Ed. Kyle McLoughlin & Maximilian C. Forte. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2013.

Recommended: No Platform (Taryn Fivek) Coverage of Standing Rock

 

 

Categories
AFRICA ANTHROPOLOGY ANTI-IMPERIALISM EMPIRE GLOBALIZATION IMPERIAL DECLINE LATIN AMERICA NEOLIBERALISM POLITICAL ECONOMY

Political Economy of Eurocentrism: The Post-WW2 “Development Project” As Colonialism

Our understanding of global interactions – economic, political, social, and cultural – are still deeply shaped by the often misunderstood period of economic restructuring between 1945 and 1970. Many questions that plague our modern world – why the US continues to expand militarily, why Haiti is in such dire straits, etc. – can be partially explained by the developments of this period. This piece endeavors to begin an outline and investigation of these developments.

The period from 1945 to 1970 is sometimes called the era of the Bretton-Woods system, but more recently has been referred to as the “Development Project”.  This is the terminology used in McMichael’s work Development and Social Change, where the development of a world economy is described as progressing in three distinct stages; European Colonization, the Development Project, and Globalization. The phrase “Development Project” is apt as it refers to the global focus on the industrialization of newly-independent colonies; industrialization is often understood as development. To this day various international agencies classify countries as “developed” and “developing” (McMichael, 2016).

While each of these stages represent distinct historical developments in global politics and economy, several continuities persist. Indeed, the post-World War “development project” would not have existed without European (and later American and Canadian) imperialism becoming the primary actor in the maintenance of the modern world-system. Likewise, neither would Globalization have become the defining paradigm without the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system as the guarantor of the “Development Project” while still building upon its major institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The wording of “world-system” is important here. A world-system is a political and economic framework which imposes itself as totalizing and universal. Capitalism, and what we call capitalist development, is the first such complete world-system in human history. Its origins lie in colonialism, which both allowed the spread of European capitalism to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the exploitation of these continents to further the consolidation of capitalism and capitalist profit-making (O’Brien and Williams “Forging a World Economy”, 2007; McMichael, 2016).

Thus, understanding that the economic eras of capitalism proceed from each other, it can be inferred that the inequalities entrenched under colonization persisted throughout the development model period. In fact, the development model period can be understood as a new era of social and economic imperialism, colonization being the first. Development model period imperialism represented a shift, rather than a transformation, of the colonial project.

Therefore, while the Development Project succeeded in preserving the capitalist world-system, it was a failed to provide adequate restitution and improvement for the peoples of the ‘developing’ world.

Pax Imperialism and the Dollar Dictatorship

Cuba. First demonstration in support of the Revolu
The Cuban 26 July Movement storming Havana, the victorious moment of the Cuban Revolution.

The imperialist countries’ shift from colonization to ‘development’ can be understood as a reaction to three distinct processes threatening the capitalist-world system, (1) the wave of decolonization and nationalism sweeping the Europe’s colonies, (2) the weakening of the European powers by the world wars, and (3) the subsequent emergence of a socialist state (the Soviet Union) as a world power.  In response to these developments, the United States replaced Great Britain as the “center” of this new orientation in the capitalist world-system and financial domination replaced traditional colonialism as the method by which “Center” countries dominated colonized “peripheral” countries.

As much as the Development Project transformed the capitalist world-system away from the colonial model, it also continued colonial policy in two key ways. First, the currency of the leading imperialist power functioned as the stabilizer and equivalent for all exchanges within the world-system. During the Victorian era, the British Pound-Sterling was the universal equivalent in almost all exchanges (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica” 2007). Under the Bretton-Woods System, the U.S. dollar was made equivalent to gold and thus functioned in the same way as the Pound (Cohen, 2001).

It should be noted that at the time of independence for most former colonies, Europe had extracted vast amounts of wealth which it was not subsequently obliged to repay their now-independent colonies (McMichael, 2016).

So while the Development Project transformed the newly-independent states of the colonized world with an influx of industrial hardware and organization, industrial projects took place unilaterally, under the dictates of U.S. economic security and geopolitical interests. The control of the United States in this arrangement cannot be understated. In effect, Pax Americana replaced Pax Britanica, the period of almost absolute British dominance. This control of the Development Project was so complete that through the Bretton-Woods system, the U.S. congress could use fiscal policy, inflating or deflating the dollar, to influence the outcomes of trades the United States otherwise played no part in (Cohen, 2001; McMichael, 2016). Like how British supremacy created competition between European imperialisms leading up to World War I (O’Brien and Williams “Pax Britanica”, 2007),  the United States’ dominance also led to dissent from Japan and Europe who lamented the rigidity of the dollar-pegged system (Cohen, 2001).

Cold War Containment

bretton-woods-sign
Sign describing the Bretton Woods System

Another factor in these contradictions was location. Both Japan and the European powers bordered socialist states; China and the Eastern Bloc countries respectively. In a strategic compromise, U.S. policymakers allowed developmental models to improve other imperialist states’ position, to the point of destabilizing of the internal U.S. economy (Cohen, 2001). Hence why West Germany was the main beneficiary of the Marshal plan as part of staving off the “Soviet wave” the U.S feared would sweep Europe. The major successes of the Development Project – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong – were also strategically located in East Asia (McMichael, 2016) to contain the socialist revolutions in places like China and Vietnam, while opening a proverbial ‘eastern front’ against the USSR.

While the Development Project was framed as an effort based on the nation-state, self-sufficiency in the area of agriculture was completely denied to emerging nation-states. Troubled by the enthusiastic and rapid communization of agriculture in China, development agencies sought to reduce the power of peasants to self-organize in India and countries with large agriculture potential through specialization in crops produced for European and North American consumption (McMichael, 2016). While U.S farmers were encouraged to grow staples like wheat and grains, India was roped into growing commodities for western consumption, making India and other countries in similar arrangements dependent on western markets for basic sustenance. India was also the poster-child of the “green revolution” in agribusiness, which created a market for excess chemical weapons the United States was  looking to reprocess (they became fertilizers). This made India responsible for the immense costs of externalities created by U.S. war activity, including ecological destruction and massive rural decline (McMichael, 2016).

Both these examples from India are demonstrative of wider processes of economic and ecological “Unequal Exchange” which perpetuated the colonial reorganization of the world. It may be easy to explain the unevenness of the world economy and the dependency of the ‘developing’ world on the ‘developed’ as simply the vestiges of colonialism. However, this would ignore the active role which the United States played in perpetuating these uneven arrangements through the Bretton-Woods system, with the consent of the other imperialist countries (and when Bretton-Woods failed to foster favourable arrangements, NATO was always on standby). Thus the problems of the development project were precisely because the objectives of the most powerful actors were the preservation of the capitalist, imperialist world-system.

The Next Phase

Understanding the deeply imperialist elements of the Development Project is essential to understanding what comes next, Globalization. Just as Britain spread ‘civilization’ across the world, facilitating the global colonial supply chain, so too did the United States spread ‘development’ through the IMF and World Bank, leading to our now deeply Americanized period of Globalization; the similarities are stark (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica”, 2007). If we are to address the contradictions of globalization, we must understand the Development Project’s impacts in shaping the globalized world into one of dependency and renewed imperialism.

airforce-1250x650

References

Cohen, B. “Bretton-Woods System” Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. Ed. RJ Barry Jones. Routledge, 2001.

McMichael, P. Development and Social Change (6th ed.). Sage Publishing, 2016.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “Forging a World Economy, 1400-1800.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 43-76. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.

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

 

Categories
UNCATEGORIZED

From the Margins: False Security, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

The October 2nd episode of From the Margins features interviews with authors and professors, Kent Roach and Jennifer Brant.

From the Margins spoke to Roach on his new book, False Security: The Radicalization of Canadian Anti-Terrorism, co-authored with Craig Forcese.

Brant spoke about the new book she co-edited with D. Memee Lavell-Harvard, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.

False Security

false-security

Kent Roach is Professor of Law and Prichard-Wilson Chair of Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He served on the research advisory committee for the inquiry into the rendition of Maher Arar, the Ipperwash Inquiry into the killing of Dudley George, and as volume lead for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report on the Legacy of Residential Schools. False Security won the Canadian Law and Society Association best book prize.

On 20 October 2014, a terrorist drove his car into two members of the Canadian Armed Forces, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Two days later, another terrorist murdered Corporal Nathan Cirillo before storming Parliament. In the aftermath of these attacks, Parliament enacted Bill C-51 — the most radical national security law in generations. This new law ignored hard lessons on how Canada both over- and underreacted to terrorism in the past. It also ignored evidence and urgent recommendations about how to avoid these dangers in the future.

For much of 2015, Craig Forcese and Kent Roach have provided, as Maclean’s put it, the “intellectual core of what’s emerged as surprisingly vigorous push-back” to Bill C-51. In this book, they show that our terror laws now make a false promise of security even as they present a radical challenge to rights and liberties. They trace how our laws repeat past mistakes of institutionalized illegality while failing to address problems that weaken the accountability of security agencies and impair Canada’s ability to defend against terrorism.

Brant: Forever Loved

forever-loved-final-cover-smallJennifer Brant is currently employed at the Tecumseh Centre for Aboriginal Research and Education, as the Program Coordinator for the Gidayaamin Aboriginal Women’s Certificate Program. She is a PhD candidate in Educational Studies at Brock University, where she is researching barriers Aboriginal women face in mainstream education, and the vision for a holistic support model that honours the educational realities and familial responsibilities of Aboriginal women.

The hidden crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada is both a national tragedy and a national shame. In this ground-breaking new volume, as part of their larger efforts to draw attention to the shockingly high rates of violence against our sisters, Jennifer Brant and D. Memee Lavell-Harvard have pulled together a variety of voices from the academic realms to the grassroots and front-lines to speak on what has been identified by both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations as a grave violation of the basic human rights of Aboriginal women and girls. Linking colonial practices with genocide, through their exploration of the current statistics, root causes and structural components of the issue, including conversations on policing, media and education, the contributing authors illustrate the resilience, strength, courage, and spirit of Indigenous women and girls as they struggle to survive in a society shaped by racism and sexism, patriarchy and misogyny. This book was created to honour our missing sisters, their families, their lives and their stories, with the hope that it will offer lessons to non-Indigenous allies and supporters so that we can all work together towards a nation that supports and promotes the safety and well-being of all First Nation, Métis and Inuit women and girls.

LISTEN to From the Margins

About From the Margins

10636088_1461088414155638_8321985564290436396_n

In more of an analytical / in-depth spirit, From the Margins covers issues of local, regional and international concern (present and historical), in that order. Over the years, I’ve covered issues revolving around workers, students, unemployed people, the arts and even sports. Buried in the heart of the From the Margins is an understanding that social problems are rooted in the socioeconomic system, capitalism, through which social relations are mediated. The show is about lived realities within this context and political challenges to these relations. That sense weaves in into many of the pieces, but can be subtle at times or can be completely in the background so perhaps no one can see it but me. The show features live and recorded interviews, recordings of presentations, the odd reading of something interesting, discussions and sometimes more creative approaches. There may be surprises.

H : I : S : T : O : R : Y

From the Margins originally started out as a radio show in the deep woods of Fredericton on the airwaves of CHSR 97.9 FM, the campus – community station amongst thickets of trees. It’s original concept was as an anti-poverty show that largely publicized and discussed the activities and ideas of the Advocacy Collective, an anti-poverty collective in Fredericton at the time. Eventually, the show’s issues became more generalized, discussing the struggles people faced at the expense of Capital. It weaved in and out of production in Fredericton, with the odd co-hosts here and there. Then, yours truly moved to Halifax and decided to re-start the show on CKDU 88.1 FM. And there it stayed for a few years…

But then we (me) started to realize how much we loved those old woods. And we were also unemployed and SOOL in Halifax. We sadly left CKDU, but were happy that it was safe and in capable hands. We trotted to Fredericton for another chapter of our existence. Trudging through the woods we found CHSR’s warm hearth and found an abundance of good things. Now, From the Margins is ready to embark on more of its critical news coverage, analysis and occasional creative approaches to addressing subjects. We remain venomous towards the dictates of capital. Ever our nemesis, we shall do our part against it: providing information and understanding of its lived reality, mechanics and ongoing resistance to its many facets. Well, we’ll try our best, “from each according to our ability … ” and all that jazz. We hope the journey will prove interesting.