Libya: Imperialism and the Left
By Stephen Gowans
While the class character of regimes under siege by Western powers is often explored in analyses of imperialist interventions and is frequently invoked to justify them, it neither explains why capitalist imperialist powers intervene nor stands as a justification for their actions.
The relevant consideration in explaining why interventions occur is not the political orientation of the government under siege, nor its relations with its citizens, but whether it accommodates the profit-making interests of the dominant class in the intervening countries. Does it welcome foreign investment, allow repatriation of profits, demand little in the way of corporate income tax, open its markets, and offer abundant supplies of cheap labor and raw materials? Or does it impose high tariffs on imports, subsidize domestic production, operate state-owned enterprises (displacing opportunities for foreign-private-owned ones), force investors to take on local partners, and insist that workers be protected from desperation wages and intolerable working conditions?
Much as it might be supposed that imperialist interventions target worker and peasant-led governments alone, this is not the case. Regimes that promote national bourgeois interests by denying or limiting the profit-making interests in their own countries of the dominant class of other countries are routinely targeted for regime change, especially if they are militarily weak or have pluralist political systems that afford space for destabilization and political interference. Since the effects are the same in imperialist countries of a local regime, say, expropriating a foreign-privately-owned oil company, no matter whether the company is turned over to local business people, the state, or the company’s employees, it is a matter of supreme indifference to imperialist countries whether the expropriation is carried out by communists, socialists or radical nationalists. Whether you’re inspired by Marx and Lenin, 21st century socialism, or the actually-existing capitalist policies that the United States, Germany and Japan followed to challenge Britain’s industrial monopoly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, if you’re going to mess with the profit-making opportunities of an imperialist country’s capital class, it will mess with you.
Gaddafi was faulted by the US State Department for his “increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and for trying to “Libyanize” the economy. (1) He “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” (2) And his pro-Libya trade and foreign investment policies were irritants to Western banks, corporations and major investors as they surveyed the globe for lucrative profit-making opportunities.
Equally likely to be targets of imperialist designs are capitalist rivals that compete for access to investment and trade opportunities in third countries. They too may become the objects of destabilization, economic warfare, and military encirclement.
This is evidenced in one of Nato’s roles: to contest spheres of exploitation. The organization’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explaining why Nato countries need to spend more on their militaries, remarked that: “If you’re not able to deploy troops beyond your borders, then you can’t exert influence internationally, and then that gap will be filled by emerging powers that don’t necessarily share your values and thinking.” (3) You can interpret this to mean that when it comes to Africa and the Middle East—which are likely the regions Rasmussen alludes to–the alliance’s raison d’être is to keep North Americans and Western Europeans in, the Russians, Chinese and Brazilians out, and the natives down. But however you interpret it, it’s clear that the alliance’s secretary general doesn’t understand Nato to be an organization of mutual self-defense, but an instrument to be used by developed countries to compete with emerging ones.
Concerning the validity of interventions by Nato countries, here too reference to the class character of targeted governments misses the point. It is not a regime’s class character, nor how it treats its citizens, that explains the reasons for intervention against it, but the class character of the countries that intervene. This in turn illuminates whether the intervention is valid or not.
The principal Nato countries are all incontestably class societies in which major corporations, banks and ultra-wealthy investors wield out-sized influence over their societies. Their representatives and loyal servants hold key positions in the state, including and especially in the military and foreign affairs, and the corporate rich have access to resources that allow them to lobby governments far more vigorously than any other class or interest can. Accordingly, the foreign policy of these countries reflects the interests of the class that dominates them.
It would be exceedingly odd were this not so. Profit-making concerns don’t melt away when corporate CEOs, corporate lawyers and bankers are assigned to key foreign policy posts in the state; when they develop foreign policy recommendations for governments in elite-consensus-making organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations; or when they lobby presidents, premiers, and cabinet secretaries and cabinet ministers.
For this reason, US and Nato interventions, while billed as humanitarian for obvious PR reasons, are at their heart, exercises in protecting and advancing the interests of the class that dominates foreign policy. This is clear enough in the business pages of major newspapers.
In recent days, the business section of The New York Times announced that “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins.” Eric Reguly, a business columnist with The Globe & Mail, the newspaper of Canada’s financial elite, echoed the point.
“The oil industry’s biggest players, meanwhile, are salivating to reclaim their old concessions and nab new ones, all the more so since their own oil production has been in decline. The vast Ghadames and Sirte basins, largely off limits to foreign oil companies since Col. Gadhafi swept to power 42 years ago, are especially attractive. So is Libya’s offshore area.
“Who will get the prizes? The (National Transitional Council) has already said it will reward the countries that bombed Col. Gadhafi’s forces. ‘We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,’ Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the rebel oil company Agogco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. ‘But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.’”
Reguly’s column ran under the headline, “They bombed and therefore they shall reap.” They shall reap, too, in another way. “The head of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, explicitly promised to reward those nations that backed Libya’s revolt with contracts in the state’s postwar reconstruction.” (4) This is the charmed circle of aggressive imperialism.
Billions of dollars are sucked out of taxpayers and into the pockets of arms manufacturers to build a war machine. The war machine is pressed into service against countries whose governments have denied or limited the profit-making opportunities of the imperialist country’s corporations, banks and major investors (many of whom have interests in arms manufacturing), causing significant damage to the victim countries’ infrastructure. Comprador regimes are installed, which throw their country’s doors wide open to the intervening country’s exports and investments and invite the intervening country to set up military bases on their territories. At the same time, the new regimes funnel reconstruction contracts to the intervening country to rebuild what its war machine has destroyed. So it is that the capitalist class of the intervening country profits in three ways: From defense contracts; new investment and export opportunities; and post-war rebuilding. A peaceful resolution of Libya’s civil war would have disrupted this charmed circle. Is it any wonder, then, that Washington, Paris, and London ignored all proposals for a negotiated settlement?
An alternative explanation might be offered. While the major oil and engineering companies of the leading Nato countries will profit from Gaddafi’s downfall, the motivation to intervene was nevertheless independent of crass commercial concerns, and was humanitarian at its core.
But if this were so you would have to explain how it was that Nato’s humanitarian concern was uniquely invested in a country in which there are still Western oil-industry-profit-making opportunities to be had, while Nato remained unmoved by humanitarian concern over the plight of Shiite Bahrainis whose peaceful protests were violently suppressed by an absolute monarchy — with the help of the tanks and troops of three other absolute monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
A third contributor to the violent suppression of the Bahraini revolt, Qatar, deserves special mention. It is celebrated in the Western press for its contribution to the Libyan rebels in arms, warplanes, training, diplomatic recognition, and (in the Qatar-state-owned Al Jazeera) propaganda–a real friend of democracy in its struggle against dictatorship and repression. The New York Times referred to Al Jazeera as an “independent news channel” (5) though it is not clear what Al Jazeera is independent of. The Times has never, to my knowledge, referred to the state-owned media of countries under imperialist siege as “independent,” this laudatory and impossible adjective (all media are dependent—whether on the state or private investors) is reserved for media that have adopted a perspective that is pleasing to the interests of The New York Times’ board of directors and its major owner.
Bahrain—a paragon society for Western investors—is already a profit-making bonanza for Western oil companies. It is also home to the US Fifth Fleet. It is therefore a de facto extension of the US economy, indeed, of US territory, and so its government can do whatever it likes, so long as it continues to keep Wall Street happy. Bombing, sanctions, destabilization and International Criminal Court indictments are reserved for governments that “raise fees and taxes” on US oil firms and try to nationalize their economies, a clear red-line.
In the view of one sector of the left, imperialist interventions are supportable so long as they lead to the toppling of a capitalist regime, irrespective of its succession by another. Of course, the outcome of any successful imperialist intervention against a bourgeois nationalist regime is its replacement by a comprador one. This hardly amounts to an advance.
For still another sector, the character of the besieged government is all that matters. The character of the intervening state, by contrast, matters not at all – not its domination by corporate, banking and investor interests; not its record of pursuing wars of conquest; and not its resort to fabrication to justify its aggressions. For these leftists, such as they are, the targeted government is reprehensible, while their own is either angelic or well-meaning. In this frame, Gaddafi’s attempts to crush an uprising is understood to be on a more barbaric plane than, say, the war on Iraq, which created a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale Gaddafi’s repressions could never match. What manner of delusion leads one to believe that the United States and Britain, the architects of rapacity and slaughter on a global scale, are (a) angelic and well-meaning, (b) motivated in their foreign policy by humanitarianism, and (c) playing a constructive role in Libya?
The most pusillanimous of leftists are those who condemn the brutalized and brutalizers equally. They take a comfortable though craven moral stance, but their condemnation of targeted governments is irrelevant. Since the character of governments under siege has nothing whatever to do with the reasons for the intervention, and does not, in the case of capitalist imperialist interventions, justify it, there can be one reason alone for singling out the victim for equal condemnation in the context of his assault: a desire for respectability and a penchant for knuckling under to mainstream opinion, not challenging it and offering an alternative, counter-hegemonic, explanation.
Suppose you live next door to an ill-mannered, thoroughly dislikeable woman who has managed to alienate everyone you know. One day her husband beats her. You can condemn the husband for beating his wife, and say nothing of his wife’s character. Why would you? It doesn’t excuse the husband’s behavior. Or you can condemn both equally, noting that as much as you deplore wife-beating, you also deplore the victim for her bad manners and irksome ways. To do the latter is unsupportable and anyone who did this would be deservedly rebuked. Yet left fence sitters do the same when they insist on condemning the governments of countries that capitalist imperialist countries intervene in to show that they don’t support the crimes of which those governments are accused. Worse, they refuse to even investigate the veracity of the accusations, and then challenge them if they fail to stand up to scrutiny, for fear of being denounced as apologists. Instead, they simply accept the accusations as true, even though similar accusations against other victims on similar occasions have been shown to be fabrications (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for example.) This is apologetics of another kind, on behalf of the left fence sitters’ own ruling class. It keeps them on safe ground. They can say later, as so many did in connection with the Iraqi WMD scam, “We didn’t know. I’m shocked, shocked!, that the government deceived us.”
However, the analogy suggests that interventions only happen in countries where governments behave in reprehensible ways, and this isn’t the case. Certainly, the impression produced by the propaganda assault that accompanies interventions is one of targeted regimes being thoroughly detestable and their demise consequently to be wished for, even if the intervention that brings it about is undertaken for the wrong reasons. And leftists, if they’re to be taken seriously in the court of respectable mainstream opinion, are expected to genuflect before the depiction of targeted countries as criminal lest they be accused of being apologists for dictators, or useful idiots. But it sometimes happens that the crimes of which targeted regimes are accused are not crimes at all, or if they are, are mild ones at worst.
The narrative used to explain the need for intervention in Libya is that a peaceful uprising of democracy-loving Libyans against the Gaddafi dictatorship was about to be crushed in blood. A narrative that navigates closer to the truth is that the uprising, touched off by surrounding events in Tunisia and Egypt, originates in the longstanding rift between a nationalist, government on the one hand, and Islamists and comprador elements on the other. While this fails to explain the uprising in full, it explains a good part of it. Is the repression of reactionary forces that threaten the state a crime? If you’re a Libyan Islamist, monarchist or CIA-backed exile, the answer is yes, just as it is if you’re an ideologue for this particular imperialist intervention. But if you’re Gaddafi, and his nationalist supporters, the answer is no.
Significantly, few people are seriously calling for Nato to mount an operation to protect Bahraini civilians from the violent repression of an absolute monarchy. However much the Khalifa regime’s crackdown on Bahraini protestors is considered a crime, it is not a crime on a large enough scale to warrant a Nato intervention. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any justification for a Nato intervention, since Nato countries are only good at undertaking interventions as investments. There has to be a promise of a lucrative payoff for an elite of capitalist masters if the investment in blood and treasure is to be justified: oil concessions free from profit-reducing taxes and fees; new export and investment opportunities; reconstruction contracts. Humanitarianism doesn’t add to the bottom line. But let’s assume for the moment, as the naïve do, that Nato can intervene for selfless reasons, and that this is not, like the lion lying down with the lamb, an impossibility. Why would we call for intervention against Gaddafi but not Khalifa? The reasons why bankers, corporations and major investors who dominate foreign policy in the Nato countries would do this is clear. That leftists do the same raises questions about what is meant by the “left”.
Diana Johnstone and Jean Bricmont lambasted significant sections of the European left for failing to vigorously oppose the Nato intervention in Libya’s civil war and in many cases for supporting it. (6) But this is like faulting sheep for grazing on grass. While regrettable, there is nothing strange or unprecedented about people who consider themselves to be of the political left, even socialists, siding with their own government’s imperialist eruptions. It has been happening since at least WWI. Lenin offered an explanation — and whether you find his explanation compelling or not the phenomenon he set out to explain cannot be denied. A sector of the left regularly sides with its own government’s imperialism, while another sector finds ways to subtly support it while professing opposition. The only sector of the Western left, with one or two exceptions, that can be counted upon to reliably oppose imperialism, and to have some kind of sophisticated understanding of it, are the Leninists.
Max Elbaum points to the phenomenon in his book about the 1960s New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. “Late-sixties activists,” he writes, “felt a powerful political and emotional bond” with the Leninist wing of the socialist movement. During WWI, this wing broke decisively “with those socialists who supported the war, or at least did little or nothing to oppose it.” They were drawn to Leninism because, like the original followers of Lenin, “they too had spent years in frustrating fights with more prestigious left forces that had dragged their feet—or worse—in the antiwar campaign.”
Elbaum credits democratic socialism’s refusal to vigorously oppose the US war on Vietnam with building support for the New Communist Movement. “Though today’s democratic socialists don’t talk about it much,” writes Elbaum, “the U.S. social democrats played a sluggish or even backward role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.” The official US affiliate of the Socialist International, the Socialist Party, “actually supported the war” and “was all but absent from antiwar activity.” Editor of Dissent, Irving Howe, among the most prominent of US social democrats, “long opposed the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.” Michael Harrington, perhaps the most widely known US social democrat, never offered a full-throated denunciation of the war. According to his sympathetic biographer, Maurice Isserman, Harrington referred to the war as if it were a force of nature rather than a product of human agency (a tragedy, like a hurricane or earthquake, rather than an instrument of US imperialism) for fear of alienating “his closest and long-standing political comrades who were supporting the slaughter…” Harrington regarded his pro-war social democratic colleagues not as backward, reactionary collaborationists but as “good socialists with whom he differed on peripheral issues.” (7)
Internationally, democratic socialists acted in ways that provoked disgust. “French Socialists, while in power had conducted the colonial war in Algeria—complete with torture. The Harold Wilson-led Labour Party government in Britain backed US Vietnam policy despite its misgivings.” And “social democrats worldwide were among the most vocal supporters of Zionism and opponents of Palestinian self-determination.”
In the late-sixties, writes Elbaum, “it seemed only natural to identify with the tendency that had fought against similar social democratic backwardness during an earlier imperialist bloodletting.”
So too in 2011.
1. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
2. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.
3. Stephen Fidler and Alistair MacDonald, “Europeans retreat on defense spending”, The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011.
4. Steven Lee Myers and Dan Bilefsky, “U.N. releases $1.5 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets to aid rebuilding of Libya”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
5. David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Inside a Libyan hospital, proof of a revolt’s costs”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
6. Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone, “Who will save Libya from its Western saviours?” http://www.counterpunch.org, August 16, 2011.
7. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Verso, 2006, p. 46