Thursday, September 21, 2006

Liberals for imperialism

Earlier this week I posted a reply to Tony Judt's attack on EP Thompson in the New York Review of Books. Now, over at the Aussie group blog Leftwrites, Gary Pearce is considering another recent piece by Tony Judt.

Entitled Bush's Useful Idiots, Judt's article for the London Review of Books upbraid Christopher Hitchens and some of the other attack dogs of the Bush administration for 'acquiescing' in the White House's War of Terror, and in particular the invasion of Iraq. Pearce is not entirely convinced by Judt:

Judt seems nostalgic for some kind of universal liberalism from times past that tried to transcend sectional interest. He would do well to place the reality of this under a bit more scrutiny. He seems unable to recognise the very close association within actually existing US liberalism between their admirably universalist view of the world — belief in equality, democracy, freedom and so on — and the more particularist pursuit of nationalist or imperialist interest, mainly constructed around America's special role in the world.

I would go further than this. I don’t think it’s a case of folks like Paul Berman or Christopher Hitchens having worthy ends (democracy, equality) in mind and choosing the wrong means (US hyperpower) to achieve those ends. The ends of Western liberals and social democrats are themselves infected by an imperiocentric worldview. Take the concept of ‘freedom’, for instance: when it is used by liberals, this is usually a generalisation of the sort of freedoms that exist in a very liberal bourgeois democracy in a time of peace and prosperity.

But Western liberals forget that bourgeois democracy in the First World is predicated on the superexploitation of the Third World by the West. The space in which democracy can exist is created by the ability of the ruling classes in the West to bribe wider sections of the population with a range of goodies - a welfare state, certain controls on the labour market and the movement of capital, a good standard of living for at least a section of the working class - and this bribery comes directly or indirectly from the pillage of the Third World. You can’t have a Sweden without scores of Swazilands or Senegals.

We can see the completely reactionary quality of the Western liberals’ concept of ‘freedom’ if we examine their responses to social revolutions in the Third World. Even the pre-9/11 liberal intelligentsia that Judt looks back to nostalgically showed itself ready to criticise such revolutions - in Cuba, in Vietnam, in Nicaragua, in Venezuela - because they did not achieve the sort of ‘freedom’ which one can find in an ideal bourgeois democracy.

Liberals like Tony Judt can actually be more dangerous than full-blooded neo-cons because they are able to dress up the depredations of imperialism in the language of progressive politics and human rights. Witness the response to the current calls for the invasion of Sudan by George Clooney. Can anyone imagine similar talk by, say, Paul Wolfowitz or Thomas Friedman yielding such an outpouring of agreement? Clooney’s record as an opponent of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq makes him a far more plausible salesman for imperialism today.


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