Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Liberation Delayed

Ever since the invasion of Iraq almost ten years ago, there has emerged a distinct "resistance" ideology which criticises the West's constant scheming and interference in the affairs of Arab or Muslim states, which is of course true. But at the heart of this resistance ideology lies a peculiar tension which has, since the start of the Arab revolutions, threatened to undermine the entire logic of resisting imperialism in the area. This is because whilst the West could be criticised heavily for its meddling in the region, it is far more difficult to objectively justify the oppression and heavy handedness with which the rulers of some Middle Eastern countries - that are themselves the champions of this resistance ideology - treat their own subjects. Pictures of Abu Ghreib or Guantanamo might shock a Western audience, but for many Arabs and Muslims, the open secret is that such practices have been the norm since as long as anybody could remember. In Iran, the notorious Evin prison could compete with anything that the CIA has subjected the victims of its rendition programme. Syrian or Libyan prisoners would make Guantanamo Bay appear mundane. And yet, the people who embrace the "resistance" ideology seem to always skirt the issue of torture in the countries they tacitly support in their struggle against imperialism. Citing ignorance, or claiming that as citizens of a Western country they are not concerned with what happens in other nations, the issue of torture and repression is then simply pigeon-holed into a cynical game of political points-scoring. But this attitude today threatens to undermine the credibility of the entire anti-imperialist project. By condemning the injustice of one party and condoning that perpetrated by the supposed victim, the entire moral foundation for their edifice becomes compromised. Here is a nice song that I think expresses some of the sentiment of anti-imperialism and resistance ideology

The point is not that the grievances felt by this current are not valid. In fact their concerns represent some of the greatest concerns facing humanity today. With what is probably the greatest economic world crisis in living memory, the issues of poverty, injustice and the economic distribution of goods in a fair manner touch upon the lives of every living human being on the planet. But it is one thing to condemn the power which oppresses, and another thing entirely to tolerate or even justify the injustice of the oppressed. This Fanonite approach to resistance politics has, for over half a century, undermined and in fact weakened the moral ground upon which resisting inequity and oppression have rested. The FLN that Fanon so passionately supported have devolved today to a corrupt cartel of generals who have it in their power to disappear anybody who protests their autocratic and repressive rule. In Syria a regime has used the socialist ideology and pan-Arabism of the Baath party to assume the reins of power, and then ruthlessly crush any form of dissent - a process that is ongoing even as I write this. In Iran, the revolution that toppled a ruthless and corrupt Shah was eventually dominated by an Islamic theocracy that is as brutal and repressive as its pro-Western predecessor. Even in Latin America, it is very difficult to justify the brutal repression of Castro's Cuba, or Chavez's populist rule, as somehow any better to the crushing economic injustice they would suffer under pro-Western dictators.

Yet today, there are still people who, because of Iraq, Afghanistan and the occupation of Palestine, continue to believe that the movements and governments which resist Western hegemony in the region are blameless when it comes to the treatment of their own people; that somehow the ends justify the means. This is absurd, and in fact by doing so they actually condemn their position to failure. One need only contrast the romanticised view of the Soviet Union with the harsh reality of life in the different soviets or the Eastern bloc countries. During the Cold War, it was to the West that most defections took place, and far more people died trying to escape Eastern Germany than Western Germany. The romantic vision of a noble popular struggle against a decadent and exploitative West just didn't seem to stand up to any close scrutiny. Here is a song from that era that captures this romantic spirit. Notice the dreamy look of the lead singer as he looks at some imaginary point on the horizon, unseen by the viewer, but evocative of a bright future, the promised proletarian paradise which would emerge once capitalism and the bourgeoisies have been defeated. It's a very interesting song , and it has a haunting and peculiarly Russian melancholy that lasts long after the song has ended. The fact that it is called the song of the Volga boatmen is no coincidence either. At the root of the party's ideology is a belief that it is rooted in the support of the common man.

The problem, as most people know today, is that the Soviet Revolution which was aimed at liberating the human being from the alienation of capital and the exploitation of those who controlled the means of production, was that instead a different tyranny, that of the ruling party and its supporters, came into existence. By the time the Soviet Union imploded, only the most fanatic still believed in the ability of Marxism to transform the world. The euphoria that greeted the end of the Cold War led some to believe that liberal capitalism had finally triumphed, and for a while it seemed that it had. Francis Fukuyama called this period the "end of history and the last man". But over twenty years later, you will be hard-pressed to find an enthusiastic champion of the neo-liberal world view. Yet at the same time, there is no clear alternative available. The resistance politics that has emerged in the past ten years has tried to find coherence, and failed to do so. In 2006, Hezbullah shot to the limelight when Israel failed dismally to crush the movement in Lebanon. In the Middle East, the resistance ideology used popular enthusiasm and support for resisting Western hegemony to seize power and strengthen their power base. The propaganda of Hezbullah is remarkably similar in its central themes to the old Soviet propaganda, albeit far more sophisticated and less obviously ideological. Farmers, old women and common people are depicted in this video,and the central message is that a great victory is attainable and just beyond the horizon. 

This video became quite popular after the 2006 war, and shows the celebratory mood that existed after the thirty-three day war. Notice the presence of Syrian celebrities who show their support for Hezbullah and its leader, and we will notice later that whilst this form of propaganda was very effective in mobilising support against a foreign enemy, it was far less so when the oppressor was the Syrian regime, and a key ally of Hezbullah. The resistance discourse could no longer remain coherent when the army that was supposed to champion the ordinary Arab was instead shooting at its own people. Here is another video where the pro-Syrian regime celebrities are trying to garner support for the beleaguered Syrian president. We can see the same crude theatrics that were shown in the previous video, but by now there is a distinct lack of energy and enthusiasm. The application of populism to garner support against another segment of the population is a distinctly new development and I think unprecedented in any other region of the world. Similar protests were organised in Iran and by Hezbullah in Lebanon, both key allies of the Syrian regime. But the fact that a portion of the population is supporting a dictator in his repression of another segment of the population could no longer be justified as a form of resistance, as hard as a regime might try to do so.

It is this populist discourse which has been used to raise a reasonable doubt in other countries about the legitimacy of the revolutions occurring in the Arab world. By attempting to portray these revolutions against corruption and oppression as counter-revolutions that have been fomented by the West, the Arab regimes have successfully convinced many who subscribe to the ideology of resistance and anti-imperialism that the revolutions in Libya or in Syria were not worthy of their support. Crucially, there seems to be a judgement that the resistance project is far too important to risk being compromised for an uncertain future in which the people these regimes are oppressing can finally choose for themselves. In this narrative, the Arab citizens are deprived of any agency and reduced to crude pawns in a geopolitical game. They are mourned over if killed by the West, but a deafening silence ensues should the perpetrator be an Arab dictator who shakes his rifle defiantly at America. This is a reality that nobody can ignore for long, or justify.

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