Tuesday, October 21, 2008

America, decolonisation and the neoconservative moment.


One of the many oddities that continues to arise in some antiwar eristic on the topic of neoconservatism is the belief that, in addition to being quasi-fascistic (which it can be) it is also naively committed to revolutionary democracy (which it can't be). This partially comes from taking foreign policy announcements too seriously. The neocons have to be understood in terms of the particular social order and dominant ideology that they were defending, against what Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued in The Public Interest was an extreme one-off threat to social stability in the form of radicalised baby-boomers, an unprecedented number of 14-24 year olds who are by definition an unsettling wild-eyed bunch. (This demographic factoid, incidentally, appears quite often in neoconservative accounts of the disorder following those Edenic Fifties. For example, Fukuyama claims, in The Great Disruption, that rising violent crime can be partially attributed to a higher number of young males who are genetically prone to aggression and violence). The dominant ideology that the neocons were conserving, by subjecting to searching critique, was liberal nationalism mark II. Liberal nationalism mark I had been that turn-of-the-century unity between northern and southern bourgeois that was purchased at the expense of African American liberty and in the process of extending white supremacy overseas. (Thus, the liberal Senator Albert Beveridge implored the US to accept a divine mandate: "God has not been preparing the English speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world ... He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples.")

Liberal nationalism mark II was an anticommunist consensus based on a domestic class compromise, sweeping authoritarianism and aggressive American expansionism. Its relationship to white supremacy was, this time, complicated by the fact that Americans had just fought what was purportedly an anti-fascist war. In addition, many of the cohorts of this refulgent patriotism were refugees from the radical left who were as yet hostile to segregation and the racist doctrines that sustained it. Further, as the Cold War proceeded under the supposed prescript of defending democracy, America's repressive racial order was becoming a PR burden. As such, liberal administrators sought to engineer a gradual readjustment and amelioration of that order, beginning with legal efforts to de-segregate the schools. On the other hand, the severity of Cold War repression bolstered the most reactionary forces in American life, particularly the southern segregationists who promulgated some of the most vicious anticommunist legislation and who were apt to portray the Civil Rights movement as a communist plot. Movements for racial equality thus either had to adapt to a fervent anticommunism and so moderate their demands that they became anaemic, or face intense scrutiny and state crackdowns (the NAACP's participation in the anticommunist coalition led to it being dubbed 'the left-wing of McCarthyism'). Further, the liberal administrators who were busy building an empire were locked into the same power and party structure as the Aryan ascendancy, and derived much of their power in office to the enormous power conferred by what was effectively a one-party state in the south. It is partly for this reason that the New Deal and the Fair Deal were so racially laden in their impact - the policies were devised to protect the peculiar institutions of white rule in the south, particularly the vast pool of low wage labour that southern capital so wealthy. And liberal policymakers were themselves the bearers of intense racial prejudices which both informed and rationalised their global subventions.

For, as eager as the United States was to displace the European colonial empires, what statesmen and diplomats dreaded was "premature independence" for colonised people. As David Schmitz points out in The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, this particular phrase - "premature independence" - was used habitually by policymakers who were apt to code their racist assumptions:

"Instead of discussing the racial characteristics of a people or nation, modernization theory allowed policymakers to rank nations in terms of their ‘objective’ developmental status, political systems, and cultural institutions in order to determine their needs and problems."


The Eisenhower administration worried that "the African is still immature and unsophisticated with respect to his attitudes toward the issues that divide the world today". Because of the opportunity that "premature independence" would represent for commies to exploit and take over these "immature and unsophisticated" peoples, the administration considered that it would be "as harmful to our interests in Africa as would be a continuation of nineteenth century colonialism". The State Department mused that the experience of dominating Latin America showed that "authoritarianism is required to lead backward societies through their socioeconomic revolutions" and that "officer groups are often the most pro-Western, disciplined, and educated institution-in-being on which backward societies can draw in time of crisis". Indeed, as Greg Grandin has shown, Latin America was the laboratory for empire, and the results yielded in Nicaragua and Haiti, for example, were soon to be applied to Vietnam. The official doctrine of opposing "premature independence" with right-wing dictatorships - who, merely by virtue of being in the 'Free World' were considered free societies in US political discourse - was hardly a secret. The NYT exulted in the overthrow of Mossadegh in these terms: "Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism. It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran's experience will prevent the rise of other Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders.". The basic inflections of official doctrine were also reproduced in an infamous Readers' Digest article from 1960, urging: "Don't Decry Colonialism!" It described decolonization as a "great drama, in which millions of black men are trying to claw their way up into civilization", but worried that they were "plunging into self-rule, unready and explosive". It argued, essentially, that the "great drama" was unnecessary as well as fraught with peril since, bar some "unresolved" exceptions in Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the only "vicious type of colonialism" remaining was in South Africa. "For the rest of Black Africa, the only enslavement left is the age-old tribal fetishes, witch doctors and primitive ignorance." The Digest also berated Americans for perceiving the world through the prism of the American Revolution: "They seem to forget that the men who wrote our Declaration were among the most idealistic, educated and politically enlightened men of their day, and that our new citizens had brought with them the best of the civilization of the Old World. In contrast, the vast majority of Africans today are uneducated and uncivilized. The struggle is to find enough of them in any country, capable of self-government, and to educate enough of the voters to resist witch doctors and extremists."

And so on. Further examples of this kind of thinking would be repetitive and redundant, but suffice to say they are plentiful in supply. But the near-eclipse of liberal nationalism mark II in the context of the Vietnam War raised fundamental questions about America's relationship to former colonial societies. At first, most liberal opinion was firmly on the side of American intervention and its support for a right-wing dictatorship - the single early exception was The Nation, which supported the putative goals of the intervention, but not the use of Diem to achieve them. Indeed, typical of liberal dissent as it developed after 1965 was Arthur Schlesinger's Bitter Heritage which, though challening some of the basic assumptions driving the war, nevertheless opposed withdrawal and insisted that America hold the line in South Vietnam. But that was soon outflanked by the New Left, and those who had been schooled in CIA liberal anticommunism watched, appalled, as millions of Americans, including a significant layer of the intelligentsia, radicalised in the context of the civil rights struggle and the anti-imperialist struggle. Irving Kristol, later renowned as the "godfather of neoconservatism", complained bitterly in a prominent Foreign Affairs piece about intellectuals who were "arrogant toward existing authority". He maintained that they were inapt to provide the relevant pragmatic solutions for policymakers in what had been transformed from a "republic" to an "imperial power". They lacked the intellectual resources to elaborate "specific principles that will relate the ideals which sustain the American democracy to the harsh and nasty imperatives of imperial power?" In particular, he wondered rhetorically, was there any Third World revolution against any dictatorial power that these intellectuals would not support? But despite the harsh, and obviously exaggerated, attack on the intelligentsia (who he would later accuse of forming part of a 'new class' of public sector bureaucrats that was hostile to American enterprise), Kristol had reason to be ebullient: "The United States is not going to cease being an imperial power, no matter what happens in Viet Nam or elsewhere. It is the world situation - and the history which creates this situation - that appoints imperial powers, not anyone's decision".

Kristol's style of provocative 'truth-telling' has become a characteristic of the more pungent neoconservative tracts, just as hostility to Third World liberation movements became a central preoccupation of neoconservative polemicists. The blunt rhetoric that contemporary neocons such as Max Boot have imbibed from Kristol is now often attenuated by a kind of moralism that he eschews, since he is a realpolitiker influenced by Hans Morgenthau. In essence, however, the arguments remain the same. And while most of those liberals and social democrats who later became neoconservatives had initially expressed some doubts about the Vietnam War itself, it later became an urgent matter to restore the old narrative and defend the intervention from its origins, criticising only the lack of vigour in its prosecution. Norman Podhoretz's Why We Were in Vietnam was devoted to just this end, and published in 1982 just as Rambo and Ronald Reagan were telling anyone who would listen that the country had been sold out by liberal elitists and noisy protesters. Kristol himself had defended the American government's suppression of the revolution and support for right-wing dictatorship on the grounds that "South Vietnam, like South Korea, is barely capable of decent self-government under the very best of conditions". Such argumentative strategies were also forcefully deployed by Jeane J Kirkpatrick who, as Schmitz points out, really explicated what had been official doctrine.

And this is what the neocons set out to conserve or remake: an imperial foreign policy consensus that fully endorsed the morally repellent strategies necessary to secure that dominance; and an ideology adequate to justifying that outlook, one that is heavily reliant on a superannuated colonial purview. It was about helping American imperialism, and American capitalism more generally, overcome the challenge of the Sixties: a challenge which they have still not fully defeated.