The British invented concentration camps, in South Africa during the Boer War. They were described by their architects as humanitarian institutions designed to protect the widows and abandoned wives and mothers of white Boers from the potential depredations of the natives. They were, of course, places of extraordinary cruelty and neglect where tens of thousands died. This reflects the tendency for liberal ideals to transform into their opposites under capitalism, a tendency which marxists
have sometimes been inclined to describe in terms of the literary tropes of 'the dialectic' (which tropes they have absurdly taken to be in some sense a 'science', and one with cosmological implications at that). It happens that institutions of terror and cruelty have so often been organised under a humanitarian remit that one is inclined to wonder if the values that supposedly gave rise to them are, 'dialectically', interpenetrated with their opposites. And here
it comes up again. The terms of humanitarianism turn out to have crucial national and raciological
dimensions (this will be vaguely familiar to British watchers of the news,who are
used to being told about 'Britons' who died in a particular calamity). Sri Lanka
constructs what it refers to as 'refugee camps', to contain the victims of its war, who happen to be its supposed racial enemies. And in these camps there will be a quarter of a million people without the necessities of survival, being raped and beaten and humiliated because they are Tamils. The government turns away aid (just as the Bush administration did during Katrina), and justifies it on the grounds that aid is an affront to the dignity of the victims who don't need charity. The spectral 'international community' is advised that 'standards' are being maintained. But even if this were true, these 'standards' are being applied to a programme of obliteration, a programme carried out with intent to destroy the resistance of the Tamil community to its 'inclusion' in Sri Lankan
sovereignty. This is a kind of neoliberal 'humanitarianism': if we can destroy any figment of radical statist opposition to the Sri Lankan national unit, we can promote growth and ultimately benefit those poor Tamil farmers while we're at it. Of course this promise is a lie, but surely the point is that such promises are routinely made to accomodate people to exploitation and immiseration. The recent success of the Congress Party in the Indian elections depended in part on their promise that with some modest pro-poor initiatives and opposition to communalism, the country would experience GDP growth that would lift all boats. On such ostensibly humanitarian edifices, enormous works of extraction and exploitation are constructed. And if, in some cases, it requires the imposition of technologies of authority originating in 'Old Europe', who is going to be sentimental enough to oppose it? If necessary, I should think, a healthy round of executions would be appropriate, for the good of the victims if nothing else.
Labels: 'humanitarian intervention', british empire, concentration camps, dialectics, liberal imperialism, sri lanka, tamil tigers, the liberal defense of murder