Monday, October 09, 2006

The iron curtain and the cloth wall.

We admit that historical materialism, like any way of looking at the world, has to be a continual work in progress. Appeals to orthodoxy are usually insupportable, and the primary if not sole use of the category of 'classical marxism' is to distinguish revolutionary socialism from Stalinism. That said, one aspect of historical materialism that seems to me to be indispensable is the critique of the critique of religion. Marx's On The Jewish Question was the genesis of historical materialism, the moment at which a naive Enlightenment critique of religion as a mere con, and as the source of oppression and ignorance, was subverted. For Marx, the problem was to be found in the social structure which generated and sustained religious belief, which is not to be located in atavism or centuries old civilisational strife, but in the very antagonisms of each particular society itself, no less of capitalist societies than of pre-capitalist ones.

And so, as Marx writes, we "do not assert that [believers] must overcome their religious narrowness in order to get rid of their secular restrictions, we assert that they will overcome their religious narrowness once they get rid of their secular restrictions." That is, we do not assert that Muslims will be free if only they give up their burqas and Quran and hadiths and so on. This is the kind of freedom peddled by states which enforce coercion on Muslim women about what they may wear: in Belgium and France, there are already legal sanctions for wearing some forms of Muslim garb (in the former you can be fined if caught wearing a niqab in public); in several German states you are not allowed to wear any headscarf or veil if you're a teacher (because it sends the wrong message to the children); in Italy, it is an offense to wear a burqa or a niqab under "anti-terrorism" legislation (because if you cover your face you have something to hide). We start by looking at the material world in which Muslims exist along with the rest of us.

It is not only a capitalist society in which communities are creatively destroyed over successive generations and which requires scapegoats, in which the sustenance of racist ideology permits the elevated exploitation of non-white workers whether as migrants or as sweat-shop workers colonised by Coca-Cola or Nike, and in which the successes of socialism and of the women's movement and of struggle by black people are constantly appropriated by the hegemonic ideology as proof of the essential benevolence of capitalist society itself, and which are bruited as evidence of the superiority of a chimerical 'Western' culture. It is not only a world-system in which advanced capitalist states compete for the resources and labour of developing capitalist states, and in which the demonstrative use of organised violence must be legitimised by racist obfuscation and demonisation. It is not only a system in which the oppression and exploitation of women has functioned as an extension of the logic of capitalist exploitation - in which, as Michael Lebowitz discusses in Beyond Capital, the working class male has been able to exploit his spouse (and 'discipline' her, regulate her sexuality, martial her productivity, fully possess her) and thereby secure the free time necessary to improve himself and reproduce his labour.

It is a global society increasingly threatened with extinction, so alienated that it can contemplate its own obliteration with passivity, because in a way it must. The bulk of humanity has no say in the matter, but retains a lingering awareness of it, and is therefore prone to nightmares. This morning, for instance, there is a great deal of excitable chatter about North Korea having tested a nuclear weapon, and some ominous noises from Washington about the consequences. Of course we aren't supposed to notice that the US not only possesses such weapons, but threatens their use, as does Israel. But we do notice that species-death is a distinct possibility. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, the most sophisticated technology designed and directed toward the obliteration of whole populations - that these exist anywhere at all is a monstrosity. And we know it. And since they cannot possibly stop, since the pressures of competitive accumulation and their fear of losing their power drives them to continue this deathly pursuit, we must be ideologically prepared to confront death under socially acceptable circumstances.

One way to make death acceptable, is to make sure it is someone else who is dying, someone who really deserves it, mind you. But to persuade you of the necessity for this, they need to populate your imagination, those habitual day dreams, with hateful fantasies about the Other. So much is obvious. The Pentagon spends a fortune advising Hollywood film-makers on how to make war seem not only and adequate situation for humans to exist in, but actually romantic, fun, exciting, witty, comradely and all the usual shit. Pearl Harbour was one recent example, of course - made with the help of US military commandos, this lengthy recruiting ad for the institutions of organised violence in the American capitalist state was followed to cinemas by military recruiters who set up tables in the lobbies to catch hyped up young men on their way out. And of course our fear of annihilation must be redirected, so that nefarious (mainly Muslim) baddies are the ones who threaten humanity with WMDs - it isn't as if there isn't a surplus of unremittingly negative depiction of Muslims and Arabs in Hollywood and the Western media more generally. These provide the psychic fuel for, and the phantasmatic background against which, current contrived controversies over Islam take place. The whole point is that because the current thrust of US policy is to make hot and cold war on the Middle East and contiguous territories, a nebulous, loosely connected set of stereotypes has to be set into motion - we are protected from the issues by a security fence of images, metaphors, associations. Straw talks about his reaction to a form of Muslim dress, and without a blink of an eye, in the space of a few hours, this is converted by the corporate media into a discussion about Muslim censorship or Al Qaeda or radicalism - without the racist metonymies that underpin this discussion, in which Islam = radicalism = fundamentalism = terrorism = bigotry = backwardness etc, it would have absolutely no coherence.

The US is not unique in the degree to which these racist narratives have been successful, but it does have a unique element, and that is the success of the Israel story. As Rashid Khalidi pointed out in the LRB debate over the 'Israel Lobby', the strenuous identification with Israel is very useful to American policymakers in this respect, since the corrolary demonisation of Arabs and Muslims attenuates and strictly frames such criticism of US policy as might otherwise occur. On the one hand, by identifying 'Israeli interests' with 'American interests', Americans can be led to believe that there is something in it for them in Israel's pathological expansionism, in its unremitting aggression toward its neighbours - but more importantly, the US can externalise its own aggression either as a 'defense of a crucial ally' or by allowing Israel to prosecute a proxy war while presenting itself as an honest broker between a recalcitrant, hostile Arab world and the only democracy in the Middle East. Incidentally, it is not a coincidence that one thing that drives the pro-war left absolutely nuts is the fact that this identification with Israel among Europeans has broken down almost entirely.

Now, take a look at current US strategy. As Chalmers Johnson records (in The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic), the US now trains military elites for 70% of the world's nations, either in domestic institutions like the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas), or through surreptitious 'meetings' in which 'advisors' sidestep legislation by providing equipment on the quiet. The State Departments International Military Education and Training programme (IMET), which is one of the programmes that coordinates this process, is now receiving record funds. The US is the world's number one arms dealer, most of the trade run directly from the Pentagon. This isn't, obviously enough, a matter of simply selling guns that occasionally end up in the wrong hands - it is a direct matter of strategy, that of transfering war to various surrogates, such as the warlords in Somalia, or the far right death squads in Colombia. The US has an iron curtain of military bases extending from Greenland, through Europe via the Balkans, into the Arab world and Africa and right through Central Asia, many of them established through violent military interventions. They aren't there to provide creche facilities for the locals. The US now has its hands on the oil spigot in Iraq. On the principle that no continent should be left behind, it is organising the violent exploitation of the Niger delta by Chevron, from whence it receives 1,014 barrels of crude oil per day. Naval forces have gathered in the Persian gulf for a potential confrontation with Iran. They really mean it when they talk about 'full spectrum dominance'.

This is a situation replete with the prospect of disaster. Some weaker, threatened states seek the protection of their own nuclear armaments where they can, while intensifying domestic repression, others form counter-hegemonic blocs. Some working class and civil society forces fight on their own soil and try to elaborate forms of international resistance, while some dislocated petit-bourgeois and lumpen elements form transnational combat organisations based on a reactionary version of political Islam. Continental fascism resurges in Europe on the basis of anti-Muslim racism, while the elements of the same are growing and intensifying in the United States.

The gathering crises of capitalism, and the increasingly life-and-death struggle of imperialist rivalry, present us with the prospect of perpetual war, some day involving weapons of mass destruction, of an increasingly authoritarian and bunkered life, of the degradation and diminution of life's resources, of increasingly polarised and alienated societies. Not only the atomisation of social life, but the atomisation of life itself. Aimé Césaire predicted the effects of imperialism: a universal regression is taking place, the gangrene is set in, the infection is spreading, a poison drips into the veins of the imperialist civilisations, the old barbarisms are recrudescent, and we lurch toward savagery. The frontispiece of civilisation won't hold up for long. In the face of this - or rather, avoiding the face of this - it is all too tempting to turn toward one's narcissistic concerns, to shore up one's self-love, to tend to one's fetishes, to retreat into fantasy, to seclude oneself, to disintegrate, to adopt a seige mentality. For all of these are immediately preferable to and much easier than committing oneself to the task of helping to (re)construct the systemic alternative embodied in a movement with the social and institutional weight capable of rolling back this crisis, of restraining our ruling classes and of constructing a new society. All of these are displacement activities; all of these are opiates of the masses.