Zimbabwe and the Politics of Demons and Angels
By Stephen Gowans
Soon after I wrote an article titled “Mugabe gets the Milosevic Treatment,” posted at Counterpunch.org, I received an e-mail from a representative of SW Radio Africa, who said I should visit Zimbabwe before writing articles about the country. This was followed by a Patrick Bond reply to my article in Counterpunch, invoking the same argument, though in an indirect way. Gowans’ views are nonsense, Bond fumed, at least, as he saw them, sitting across the Limpopo river, where, he said, he had managed to establish a pretty good handle on what was going in Zimbabwe.
Had I been writing a travelogue both of my critics would have made a good point, but inasmuch as I was writing about Washington and London having dragooned civil society – and in some cases, having created it from the ground up – for the purpose of ousting the government of Robert Mugabe, their criticism was wide of the mark. You don’t have to travel to Zimbabwe to figure out that Mugabe is getting the Milosevic treatment.
Even Bond, in his characteristically haughty way, acknowledged the US intrigues in Zimbabwe with a dismissive “tell us something we don’t already know.”
For the record, the British newspaper The Guardian revealed as early as August 22, 2002 that, “The United States government has said it wants to see President Robert Mugabe removed from power and that it is working with the Zimbabwean opposition” “trade unions, pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations” “to bring about a change of administration.”
Washington confirmed its own civil society-assisted regime change plans for Zimbabwe in an April 5, 2007 report, revealing that in 2006 “The U.S. government continued to support the efforts of the political opposition, the media and civil society,” including providing training and assistance to the kind of grassroots “pro-democracy” groups the US had used to bring down the government of Slobodan Milosevic, and that Bond had celebrated in his Counterpunch article as “the independent left.”
There are three key reasons why the US is trying to oust the Zanu-PF government:
(1) The Zanu-PF government has expropriated land from white commercial farmers for redistribution to the rural poor.
(2) It has pursued economically nationalist policies at odds with IMF demands.
(3) It has been a rallying point for anti-imperialist sentiment in southern Africa.
SW Radio Africa is a UK-based radio station, funded by the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives to broadcast anti-government propaganda into Zimbabwe. Violet Gonda, one of the station’s interviewers, has been sending me transcripts of her interviews ever since my Milosevic Treatment article appeared on the Counterpunch site. In an April 10 interview with Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi, UK-based Gonda was challenged by Mohadi to “come to Zimbabwe and witness this for yourself and don’t be talking about things that you don’t know,” turning the argument Gonda’s colleague had made to me against her. Mohadi was referring to Gonda’s allegations that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai had been beaten and that MDC supporters had been tortured.
Amusing as it was to see the same argument used against SW Radio Africa, the “come to Zimbabwe before you say anything” demand is based on the startlingly naïve view that someone else’s perspective must align with your own if only he visits the same piece of real estate. The view of the rural poor in Zimbabwe, or of veterans of the guerilla war for national liberation, can hardly be expected to be the same as those of white commercial farmers, even though they live in the same country. It is experience, race, which side of colonialism you’ve been on, and what opportunities imperialist countries offer you, that account for why the views of Zimbabwe’s rural poor and of Zanu-PF supporters are different from those of comfortable white professors ensconced in foundation-supported positions across the Limpopo river, and of young black Africans from Harare who travel to the US on US State Department sponsored trips to study civil disobedience techniques.
If my article resonated with anyone, it resonated with black Africans, members of the African Diaspora and anti-imperialists. White commercial farmers and anyone linked to the civil society apparatus deployed to unseat Mugabe’s government angrily dismissed it. But why? Why would opponents of Mugabe – including Bond, who acknowledges that the US is acting to drive Zanu-PF from power (that is, when he’s not arguing the exact opposite) — take exception to someone drawing attention to something that is a matter of public record?
The reason, I think, has everything to do what different groups of people value more: the thwarting of imperialist designs (and the land reform, redress of colonial injustices, and national sovereignty that are thereby given space to come to fruition), or ousting Mugabe. If you want Mugabe to go, you’ll oppose anything that reveals efforts to unseat him as being illegitimate. It won’t be enough to say, “Yes, you’re right, Washington and London are engaged in intrigues to topple the Mugabe government, but all the same I dislike him and his program and here’s why.” Instead, you’ll fulminate, “This is nonsense!”
You’ll probably also practice the politics of demons and angels – the division of the world into two camps: bad guys and good guys, black hats and white hats. The objective is to describe leaders, governments, movements and programs you want to see the end of as demons, and those who are acting to achieve this end as angels. However, because those that lean to the left of the political spectrum are unlikely to regard imperialist governments as angels (although this is far from being invariably true) civil society groups are recruited as proxies. They appear to be independent, to do good works, and they have a “socialism from below” feel that resonates with the Western left. Patrick Bond, who directs a center for civil society, is a master of invoking the kind of rhetoric about social movements being an “independent left” operating in spaces between neo-liberal Third World governments and neo-liberal First World governments that appeals to the Z-Net congregation.
The politics of demons and angels is terribly unsophisticated. That should be enough to keep 100 paces away from it. But it should also be eschewed for an even more compelling reason: because it’s used to build support for imperialist interventions in other countries — interventions that have nothing whatever to do with promoting human rights, building democracy, and keeping the peace, and everything to do with opening up space for the intervening countries’ corporations, banks and investors to make a profit.
Yugoslavia was transformed by Western intervention from a country with a large socially and publicly owned sector, whose government balked at IMF reforms, into a neo-liberal workshop of growing economic insecurity and domination by Western capital. Iraq, brutalized by sanctions, terrorized by war, and humiliated by occupation, may in time yield its prize of a bonanza of oil profits to British and US oil firms. These prizes could not have been won without campaigns of vilification to manufacture consent for intervention. The bases for these interventions – that Milosevic was orchestrating a genocide in Kosovo and that Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons – were lies.
In the real world there are three kinds of views on the struggle in Zimbabwe: those that demonize Mugabe; those that angelize him; and those that do neither. In the Manichean world of the politics of demons and angels there are only two: those that demonize Mugabe and those that angelize him. Anyone who expresses a view that neither demonizes nor angelizes Mugabe is accused, by those who demonize him, of angelizing him.
A person who notes, quite accurately, and with the weight of evidence behind him, that Washington, London and the EU have built and enlisted civil society in Zimbabwe to oust Mugabe, will be called by those who demonize him, a pro-Mugger, Mugophile, or practitioner of the basest enemy of my enemy is my friend politics. And yet there is no justification for making these accusations. Repeating what has been said over and over by the US State Department and in newspaper reports about US and British intrigues in Zimbabwe is hardly the same as saying Mugabe is my friend, Mugabe is my hero, or Mugabe is a great guy, let’s organize a celebration in his honor.
When demonizers of Mugabe accuse those who point out that what Washington and London admit to openly, as being Mugabe-angelizers, we have to ask why? Is it because their Manichean worldview allows them to see the world in no other way (if you don’t call him a demon you must think he’s an angel, because there are only angels and demons in my world), or is it because they’re so embittered toward Mugabe that they don’t care who gets rid of him or how or what follows him, just so long as he goes, and therefore anyone who would regard him as something other than a demon must be stopped from doing so in case he persuades other people?
To be sure, these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Both may be true. But what’s significant is that both mesh nicely with the openly admitted plans of Washington and London to oust Mugabe’s government. If Mugabe is universally understood to be a demon, we can hardly marshal the energy to stop plans to oust him. Why bother? You’ll only soil yourself by association. And who wants to back a demon?
The claim made by Z Magazine’s Michael Albert, that human psychology isn’t this simple – that people recognize that a foreign leader’s being a demon doesn’t justify an intervention to remove him – reveals Albert to be either disingenuous or the last person on earth you would want to invite into an advertising firm as a human relations expert. You don’t have to talk to too many people, including readers of Z Magazine (especially readers of Z Magazine?) to hear it said: “Oh sure, maybe the bombing of Yugoslavia, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the war on Iraq, were done for the wrong reasons, but all the same, they served the useful function of ridding the world of monsters.”
Given a zeitgeist that favors a never-ending series of demons for people to vent their moral outrage on, it comes as no shock to find professed anti-imperialists combing their archives to dredge up whatever dirt they can find on Mugabe. One found an article that exposes Mugabe as a homophobe. But what have Mugabe’s views on homosexuals to do with the struggles in Zimbabwe that connect the rural poor, white commercial farmers, Zanu-PF, civil society, and the imperialist machinations of the US and the UK?
The answer, of course, is nothing. But there is a political function and also a psychological function to be served in good old-fashioned dirt-slinging. Politically, the object is to personify a movement to discredit it by drawing attention to the revolting features of the person the movement has been equated to. There’s a Pavlovian character to this. The pairing of the bell with food, eventually leads to the bell alone calling forth the dogs’ salivation. Likewise, the pairing of the person with the movement, or class, or nation, eventually leads to the negative features of the person being transferred to what he has been equated to. Were one to dredge up articles on Castro and Che being homophobes, Cuba-supporters would immediately recognize the political nature of the act. They don’t, however, seem to recognize the political nature of the act of visibly parading one individual’s failings about, under the guise of a making a significant contribution to understanding the struggle in Zimbabwe — or do, but go about doing it anyway because their commitment to anti-imperialism is fair-weather (strong when there’s no danger of being demonized by association, absent otherwise.)
The psychological as opposed to political function of dirt-slinging is to socially affirm oneself as a decent human being by denouncing those who express indecent values. This is particularly attractive to people on the far left, who are already mistrusted by the larger community for holding dangerous and unsettling views. How better to affirm one’s place in decent society than by leading the chorus in denouncing those vilified by conservative forces as leftist and anti-imperialist “monsters.” See, not all of us are monsters. We hate the monsters just as much as the rest of you do.
Let’s be clear. The very fact that I’m questioning the practice of personifying groups of people in order to demonize the individuals equated to them will be used to denounce me as a thug-hugger, apologist, and lionizer of monsters. In other words, if you’re not with us in vilifying the latest Satan, you’re against us. The great irony is that people who rail against those who refuse to participate in campaigns of vilifying those calumniated as left and anti-imperialist “monsters” accuse people like me, of practicing a with-us-or-against-us politics of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,” remarked Brecht. He might have added, unhappy is the land that needs demons (but then, the land that needs heroes, must, per force, need demons as their heroes’ antithesis.) The movie The Motorcycle Diaries, about Che Guevera’s trip through South America with his friend Alberto Granado in the early 50s, has been justly criticized for angelizing the Argentine revolutionary. When those enchanted with Che the angel discover Che the human being, a man with warts – though, as is true of all larger-than-life figures, uglier than those of the rest of us – they become disillusioned, embittered and, if strongly committed to a Manichean view of the world, swing radically to the other pole, denouncing their fallen angel as Satan incarnate, rather than recognizing him as a human being.
The best that can be said about discussions of Zimbabwe, or north Korea, or Sudan, or Iran that reduce to a set of accusations about the demonic character of some leader is that they’re superficial and frivolous. What can also be said is that they’re products of manipulation by forces seeking to manufacture consent for interventions in other countries – interventions that have nothing to do with human rights and democracy and have everything to do with securing advantages for the intervening countries’ corporations, banks and investors. When we dissociate ourselves from “unsavory” regimes – and there’s not one government, Western or otherwise, free from unsavory features that would not allow any of them to be demonized – we isolate really-existing projects for national and class emancipation and thereby undermine the potential for the success of progressive struggles in the real world. It’s true that in behaving in this way we can avoid demonization by association and thereby splatter-proof our own vision – a strategy that may serve the purpose of making our vision more saleable to a skeptical public — but it cannot be safeguarded from vilification forever. The moment it too becomes a threat, it will be vilified as vigorously as all real-world threats to imperialism are. The idea that you can escape being vilified by those you oppose is true only so long as you don’t oppose them in any kind of serious or effective way. Utopian visions – and those whose left politics amount to nothing more than pious expressions of benevolence and goodwill to men – are no threat.
What’s more, the view that the success of the independent (which is to say, the US government and ruling class foundation supported) left in Zimbabwe in toppling the Zanu-PF government is something to be wished for, is naïve or (given the foundation-connections of those who express this view) disingenuous. A successful civil society-executed regime change operation will not produce a decentralized, participatory democracy committed to egalitarianism, but a neo-colonial regime headed by an Anglo-American puppet which will immediately handcuff land reform and abrogate every policy at odds with neo-liberalism and ownership of Zimbabwe’s assets by US and British capital.
The models are Poland and Yugoslavia (among others.) There, trade unions and civil society also managed to enchant the Western left while bringing down governments that were the only serious obstacle to the installation of comprador regimes — regimes whose agenda was one of shutting down shipyards, selling off socially and publicly owned enterprises, and ushering in an era of growing inequality and subservience to Western capital. You don’t hear much about these places anymore. You should. They’re what Zimbabwe will become if civil society topples another anti-imperialist government.