During Obama’s latest address to the nation in which he reminds us that he’s going to keep bombing MENA no matter what we think about it, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill was busy firing off a flurry of tweets noting some of the omissions and outright lies in the speech. Some of it’s worth reading, but this was the tweet that really caught my attention:
Before Scahill really got started, he offered this increasingly popular vision of the ruling class in the form of Sideshow Bob continually stepping on a rake, seemingly unable to grasp the basic relation of cause and effect. The implication is, of course, that the ruling elite are a bunch of fucking morons. They cause problems with their right hand that they try (and often fail) to solve with their left. They endlessly pursue their most immediate goals without considering the long-term consequences. Given this image, it’s a wonder these people can even get themselves to work in the morning, much less sustain an empire.
But Scahill is hardly alone on the left in making this kind of argument. His colleague at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain, even offered policy suggestions to our foolish imperial overlords, lest they start another fire they can’t put out:
Rather than reflexively satisfying an emotional need to “do something” in the face of atrocities committed by ISIS against American citizens, a policy of coalition-building across ideological lines could potentially eliminate the group and perhaps begin to heal sectarian divisions in the region. Obama’s speech tonight offers a prime opportunity to articulate a pragmatic, effective strategy. If ISIS is really the apocalyptic threat that U.S. politicians have made it out to be, such pragmatism is absolutely necessary. American policy on this issue has so far been both incomprehensible and counterproductive. But by bringing all major parties to one side against ISIS, something positive may be salvaged from it yet.
These tendencies are further explored in exhaustive detail in this brilliant essay by Patrick Higgins that I suggest you read in full. But, to put it simply, the notion that the ruling elite are so stupid they don’t even know their interests, much less how to go about securing them, is ahistorical, power-serving nonsense. If we just look at recent history in the region, we can see that American power has intervened in and destroyed a number of countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya to name a few), seen the results, and carried on doing it as though all had gone according to plan. I suppose it’s possible they are completely insane, but if we are going to think seriously about the logic of American power and how it gets applied to existing conditions, we should be using the results of previous interventions to inform our thinking in the present. Imperial aggression predictably disrupts all existing order, increases sectarianism, and often fractures the potential of independent development. If power knows these are predictable consequences of military intervention, and keeps on intervening, we can reasonably assume they are desired outcomes.
Now, of course, the imperialists can’t predict every consequence of their meddling, but I think we can be pretty sure they think military intervention is likely to lead to favorable conditions for penetrating markets and generating profit or they wouldn’t be doing it. American policy is only “incomprehensible” and “counterproductive” if you assume their interests in Iraq and Syria are what they say they are. And how is it possible to view the recent history of Iraq and assume America has any interest whatsoever in making things better there? It’s a commentary on the health of left discourse that these assertions can pass without much protest.
This tendency to assume the world we live in is largely a product of mistakes, instead of conscious state policy is now pretty standard in certain parts of the left. It reminds me of some opponents of the drug war who insist our policies simply aren’t working. Sure, these policies have had catastrophic impacts on communities throughout this country, not to mention the plague of violence it has initiated south of the border, but what exactly makes them mistakes? If you have a power structure that enforces laws for decades that have very little effect on the production, availability, and use of drugs, but has successfully increased the rate of incarceration of nonviolent “offenders” astronomically, perhaps we should be thinking about this problem a bit differently. Is it possible that this is a conscious war being waged on the underclass using drugs as a pretext? A war that power is winning handily, in no small measure because of this fundamental confusion about what we’re actually facing?
Other people have also pointed out the ideological trap of assuming the history of American power is one of destructive mistakes. This Arthur Silber piece quotes some very insightful thoughts from Robert Higgs on the subject:
As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent “failed” policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money. When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars. So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the “peace process” never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.
Silber himself adds:
The ruling class has not “lost,” not in Gaza, not in Iraq, not in most of the other many wars of aggression throughout history. To claim that they have is to misapprehend what their interests are, and how those interests are fulfilled. The prospect or, very infrequently, the actuality of large scale public unrest and protest may cause the ruling class to make concessions now and then, concessions specifically designed to ensure future compliance. But except for extraordinarily rare moments of profound historical shift, the ruling class continues in its enjoyment of untold wealth and power, all of which is fed with the blood and suffering of the “ordinary” people.
Maybe I’m overreacting to an offhand tweet, but it was articulated at a time when there’s a lot of acrimonious “infighting” going on, some of it arising from the different ways people act in relation to and think about celebrity lefts. Instead of setting the table myself, I’ll just recommend you read Tarzie’s post here (don’t neglect the comments).
The reason I highlight Scahill’s tweet specifically is that I find it to be a power-serving argument coming from a person who I believe wields a great deal of influence on left politics. It seems to me that most people reading Scahill’s timeline during Obama’s speech would see the majority of his arguments as fierce, well-considered, and principled. I actually agree with some of what he had to say, and generally think he’s as serious a celebrity left as you’re likely to find. But that’s what makes the underlying assumptions about power so toxic: Many people on the left comfortably defer to him on issues of US foreign policy because they’re generally inclined to accept his judgment. In doing so, there’s a danger of not only giving a pass to reactionary ideas, but allowing them to become standardized without much attention.
Others have criticized Scahill for different reasons. Once again, Patrick Higgins offers a wide-ranging essay that, in part, addresses an incident where Scahill threatened to back out of a peace conference if another speaker he vehemently disagreed with about the reality of the war in Syria was to appear as well. Higgins also breaks down the way Scahill responded to his critics on twitter in the wake of that controversy. In another case, Douglas Valentine reviewed the Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars that Scahill co-wrote, co-produced and is featured in as the dominant subject. Valentine has a lot to say about what is and is not in the film, some of which I don’t agree with, but his point regarding the general omission of historical context and the critical role the CIA has played, and continues to play in these shadow wars is hard to ignore. Related: As Tarzie notes here, a feature of the Snowden disclosures, now being published at The Intercept, has been to narrow the focus from the vast, unaccountable surveillance state to one rogue, lawless agency. It’s possible there are good journalistic reasons for narrowing the frame, but people should at least be noticing these tendencies and thinking about them.
I largely came to my own politics through people like Chomsky, Greenwald and Scahill, but I typically don’t think people shed the influence of surrogate thinkers once they’ve become attached. I’ve been told that I spend too much time thinking about celebrity lefts, and often overestimate the influence they have on the way people think. “After all, aren’t there worse people to take aim at? You know, people who are even more prominent, and clearly siding with power in support of further aggression in the region?” I may have made this argument myself a couple of years ago, but I’ve since found a lot of significant ideological differences between myself and team “adversarial,” and given the influence I believe they have on the profile of left politics, I think it’s important for people to identify the weak foundational politics that make them desirable to someone like Omidyar, and point out how those politics function in specific cases.
I have come to find the position occupied by celebrity lefts as simply a fundamental obstruction to more radical thought. The space they occupy doesn’t seem to make room for different ideas, and it serves power by setting the limits of permissible opinion, which is then policed with a great deal of intensity by those who attach themselves to these left luminaries. Seeing the way Glenn Greenwald and his followers responded to legitimate criticism throughout the Snowden spectacle was a good lesson in the way power disciplines those who ask unwelcome questions and refuse to accept imposed narratives.
If we’re going to assume left analysis has any value at all, we should be able to agree that criticism of those who set the coordinates of our discourse, effectively deciding what ideas are privileged and what ideas are marginalized, should be made a priority. These celebrities should be met with a great deal of skepticism, if only for their prominence. Additionally, I think an honest analysis of their propaganda function is crucial in order to develop the strong intellectual self-defenses we need to interpret the world as it actually is. We simply can’t reach sound conclusions otherwise.
It has been pointed out to me on twitter that I never specifically mentioned Israel in this post:
While that’s true, my analysis includes Israel in my condemnations of the empire. Israel is a client state that is crucial to securing the empire’s interests. I also quote two other writers that mention the suffering of the Palestinians and how the conditions in Gaza do not represent a loss for the ruling class. I guess I assumed people would make the connection, but just to clear things up, I’m in no way denying Israel’s role in all this.