Remedying the Liberal Defence

March 3, 2009

Has there ever been a war fought by the major western powers that didn’t involve a legion of liberal apologists, lining up to buttress the case for conflict, and weaken those who sough to oppose it? In his excellent new book, British blogger, and socialist activist Richard Seymour, argues that there hasn’t, and it’s hard to argue with his case.

As he phrases it in the title of his book, Seymour sets out to prove that, over a period of more than a century, commentators, philosophers, activists and left-wing politicians, have found themselves articulating a “liberal defence of murder” in favour of imperial conquest, cold war devastation and the “humanitarian interventions” of the 1990s and beyond.

Seymour skillfully traces a thread of argument which justifies imperial aggression both as a liberatory force – a bringing of ideals such as justice, secularism, scientific development and the like – and as a response to the perceived inability of inferior peoples to govern themselves. The irrationality of Indians in the nineteenth century (not to mention the Egyptians, Afghans, Algerians and many more) melds into the “totalitarian” tendencies of the Vietnamese in the 1960s and the anarchic ethno-centricity of the Serbians, Bosnians, Croats, Somalis, Congolese of the 1990s.

The conjoining of the aggressive liberal stance, with a narrative of terrifying (or “terrorist”) Islamo-fascism is simply the most recent incarnation of this phenomenon which, Seymour judiciously notes, has been steeled by the persistence of white supremacism in the world’s dominant interventionist power, the United States.

“Liberal Defence” is therefore a useful component of our own “defence” against the temptations of the humanitarian adventure. It isn’t, as some reviewers appear to have misinterpreted, an out and out attack on U.S. imperialism (although it certainly does mount an effective critique of the hyperpower’s tendency towards brutality). It isn’t a dissection and attack on neo-conservatism, although Seymour’s treatment of that movement is nuanced and sharp.

Seymour’s book is fundamentally a work of political economy. As he writes in the introduction, he is interested in unveiling how “as well as acting as conduits for the distribution of policy justifications, the liberal pro-war intellectuals help frame arguments for policy makers in terms more palatable to potentially hostile audiences.”

In doing so, he is forced to delve deep into history, as he recognizes the need to go to the root of “widely held assumptions about the remedial power of conquest” – assumptions which he shows, still hold good. This kind of intellectual work is seldom produced these days, work which gives ideas their rightful history, and exposes their true genesis.

As Seymour writes astutely, “humanitarian intervention” has become permissible through “an energetic depoliticization of the issues.” In an intellectual world where “politics [is] reduced to human rights” and where human rights are understood as best promoted “through the reassertion of ‘European values'” he argues that “crises can be extracted from the dense lattice of geopolitical and political-economic considerations to be depicted as stark morality tales.”

This is the spine of his book. With politics “reduced” to the protection of human rights, questions of political economy are ignored, allowing the discourse of rights to be appropriated by anyone with the public relations knowledge to do so. Seymour argues that this was the case in the Balkans during the 1990s (which he discusses at length) and, of course in the case of the current Iraq War as well.

In Seymour’s view, in the same way that “humanitarian intervention” became a clarion call of the 1990s, so “anti-totalitarian” intervention has characterised the post-September 11 period. In both instances, the same voices have been raised in support of mass destruction, and will do so again – all in the name of freedom and rights. In the meantime, shielded from scrutiny by the ruminations of humanitarians, the actually existing political economy of capitalism will continue to wreak havoc.

Cargill will enslave, deforest and ship. Exxon will flare, warp scientific argument and fund tyrannical governments. De Beers will buy governments, appropriate masses of land and fund militias to deal with artisanal mining. Barrick Gold will devastate the environment, sending poisons into rivers.

Meanwhile, we will be told that the pre-eminent threat to “human rights” comes from rogue states, even rogue cultures or religions, whose adherents are given to unquenchable bouts of violence and, because of this, require our protection. Yet the discourse of liberal interventionism is anti-systemic, and deeply myopic when it comes to capitalism.

One of the best aspects of Seymour’s book is therefore the way that he makes this myopia apparent. For example, he relates at some length the career, and ideological odyssey, of Paul Berman – once a radical rabble-rouser, then a “liberal” backer of Reagan’s policies in Central America, before moving into a virulent critique of Islam as “totalitarian.”

Berman has travelled so far that he now counsels liberals to refrain from even enquiring about the motives of their adversaries, be they Serbian tyrants, Islamist suicide bombers, or Iraqi Baathist. Such movements and phenomena are, in his view, “not merely morally repugnant, but irrational.”

It is this irrationalism – on the part of the liberal apologists for war – that is so dangerous. This led Berman himself into knots of anguish on the eve of the Iraq War. As he told the New York Times, while he believed that war against Saddam would be a “war for liberal civilization,” Berman doubted the sincerity of its neo-con promoters. Pathetically, Berman told the Times that “because I don’t actually know — I believe that no one actually knows — what is the actual White House policy” he could not support the administration’s “war plans.”

Yet his book, and subsequent utterances, then provided a jolt for liberal interventionists whether or not they believed in neo-con sincerity or ignored the big bubbly pot of liquid carbon underneath what Berman hoped could become “a beachead for Arab democracy.”

Essentially, people like Berman had doubts, but they persuaded themselves to see in the war what they wanted to see. And, like Tony Blair, who in Berman’s view then played the role of “leader of the free world” they became accomplices to the death of perhaps a million innocent people.

Seymour manages to explain to us how this kind of self deception (and narcissism) is generated. He does not homogenize the liberal hawks, and he does not identify them simply with neoconservatism. He takes them seriously, and gives them a history, which they sorely need. And to us, he gives a powerful means of countering the next wave of hysterical interventionism.

There are some errors in the text, which I’m sure have been pointed out, not least the misidentification of George McGovern as Eugene McGovern, but Seymour can hardly be blamed for that. And Seymour’s style, while eloquent and engaging, is also discursive, which can obscure the core of his argument, but largely does not. Readers of his blog will be familiar with his witticisms, which are toned down here (although the line “like most nationalisms [Theodore] Roosevelt’s was sentimental and camp” raised a chuckle) and this is all to the good. He avoids treating ideas and individuals for which he has evident distaste with a dose of sarcasm, while he treats his subjects fairly (even having a critical word or two for Marx’s own leanings towards the civilizing mission).

In all, read this and intervene. Intervene in politics, in solidarity movements, in writing, in conversation. Intervene so that we can continue to build a world where the Left opposes imperialism, rather than providing cadres of willing collaborators, without whom it would stand naked as the brutal exercise of state power, “humanitarian” or otherwise.


One Response to “Remedying the Liberal Defence”

  1. Greg Mucha Says:

    Szam-bam — normally I would agree with you on these points.

    However, there’s been some pretty substantial work in cultural anthropology lately that makes the argument against modern civilization rather moot.

    If we were killing, as a percentage, as many people as we did in the 10th century, the 20th century would have seen 2 billion dead. Instead, only a mere 100 million humans were abnormally dispatched.

    The decline has been steady over the centuries with a noted acceleration in decline around the French Enlightenment.

    And let’s not forget those legendary bucolic Native Americans who were peacefully tending their gardens and hunting buffalo when those pesky blue-eyed white boys showed up with their smallpox-infested blankets.

    All this not to suggest that 20th century humans haven’t been obnoxiously homicidal, because we have been. But it is exceedingly poor form to argue against the facts simply because they’re so hugely slanted in favor of the opposing point of view that one cannot see them clearly.

    If the problem is humans in general, I would have to agree. But if the resolution is to any further time to the neo-conservatives, or their kissing-cousins the John Deans, of this world, I’m sorry but I respectfully have to hurl.

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