Imperialism: Then & Now
An Interview with Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali, born in Lahore, Pakistan, is based in London where he is an editor of "New Left Review". A prolific writer, he's the author of more than a dozen books on world history and politics. In his spare time he is a filmmaker and novelist. His latest book is the "The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity". I talked with him at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in late January 2003.
Imperialism is not a word that is often used in polite discourse in the United States.
I've always found it very strange, traveling and speaking throughout the United States, that it's a word they don't like. They assumed that an empire consisted of colonies abroad that were ruled and staffed by people sent from the imperial country, whether it was Britain in India or France in Algeria or Germany in Namibia or Belgium in the Congo. And they said, "Well, we don't do it like that."
For a long period the U.S. kept to its own sphere. What caused them to move out was not so much the need for colonies, which they didn't need in that sense, given the size and scale of the United States itself and the natural resources it possessed, plus the fact that they dominated South America. What forced them to move out was the Russian Revolution.
There is a very interesting parallel that at the same time as the Russian Revolution was taking place, Woodrow Wilson decided it was time for a major U.S. intervention because they were nervous now that the threatening of capitalist interests in Europe could actually threaten them in the long term. That's when they decided they had to go international.
The victory of the Russian Revolution meant that it had an enemy. Here was a country that challenged capitalism quite openly. So for 70 years they fought that system. Finally they defeated it by forcing it to go on a binge of military spending, which was completely unnecessary. So the USSR imploded. That was a big, big victory for this empire.
To what extent is imperialism connected to or is an outcome of capitalism?
All the early empires were founded by the need for capital to expand, the need for capital to find new markets. It was this struggle for markets that finally created the British empire, the Dutch empire, the Belgian empire, the French empire. World War I was a war fought over colonial expansion. Who would control the trade routes? Who would control the markets? Germany, which had unified late and came to capitalism later than the other powers, decided it wanted its own empire. It felt that the way to get it was to defeat Britain, and then it could actually move forward.
For a while this got disguised because while the Soviet Union and that whole bloc of states existed, there was talk of imperialism, but by and large people in the West saw this as essentially fighting a war against an evil enemy, an evil empire. Now the slate is clean once again. We have the world before us naked. We see exactly what is going on. The September 20, 2002 strategy doctrine put out by the Bush administration makes it crystal clear what this is all about. They say a holy moral principle is the defense of free trade, i.e., free trade as we see it and according to rules that we make and how we regulate it. In order to defend this, we are prepared to go to war. That has been the principle of all empires. The difference between the American empire and previous empires is that the United States usually prefers to work through local compradors, local rulers who are on their side. They don't like ruling directly because they know it's an enormous expense. Why send your own people out to run a country when you can find locals to do it? That is how they've always operated. For example, they occupied Japan after World War II, they created a constitution and MacArthur was like a viceroy. But they pulled out after a few years and let their local relays in Japan carry on, as they still do. The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party was created by the United States to do the job for them.
At a distance, they see the Far Eastern region, the united Korean peninsula, Japan, and China, as a combination that could be deadly if it ever got together economically, politically, and militarily. They fear that if this happened, within ten years this area would become economically hegemonic. Thus, American strategic policy is designed to keep these countries separate from each other. That's why the Bush regime is now trying to stop Korean reunification because they are fearful that a unified Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons would make the Japanese go for nuclear weapons. Then you would have three nuclear powers in the region: Japan, Korea, and China. If that happened, I think they would try and make them fight each other because they are really fearful of a link-up in this region. That would severely threaten their interests.
If you read Thomas Friedman's article on the war in Iraq, this guy spells it out. He says, It's laughable to pretend it's not about oil. He says, It's not just about oil and of course we know it's not just about oil, but he says oil does play a big part in it. So they are no longer trying to conceal their real aims. They are saying, This is the situation. We're the world's mightiest power. These are our economic interests, these are our strategic interests, and these are our geopolitical interests. You'd better watch out, guys, because we're going to defend them. This is imperialism, different from the past, in a new situation. In the war in Iraq they will assert new, raw imperial power in a way they have not done before.
Walter Rodney, a political thinker and writer from Guyana, talked about what he called "the local lackeys" of imperialism. Tell me more about this class of collaborators.
In the middle of the last century, you have the Korean War – a three-year war fought by the United States under the banner of the United Nations, in the course of which the industrially strong part of Korea, which was the north, is completely devastated. Not a single building was left standing. Its entire infrastructure was destroyed.
Then you had the Vietnam War. First, the French were defeated in Vietnam. The United States was not prepared to see that defeat and stepped in. The aim of the American empire was, by hook or by crook, to get rid of these governments somehow; to maintain a nationalist pretense and to get in a different group of people who could pretend to be anticolonial nationalists, but who would actually be serving the needs of the great metropolitan empire.
How did they do this? They failed in Vietnam. They succeeded in dividing Korea. But they couldn't rule South Korea democratically because no lackeys could be found who could be elected. So when you don't find lackeys who can be elected democratically, you put the army in power. They did the same thing in Pakistan. When a general election was planned for April 1959 that would have returned a government that would have withdrawn from the security pacts into which they tied Pakistan, they organized a coup d'etat and put the military in power in October 1958 to preempt a general election. The country that worried them the most in the middle of the last century was Indonesia because this country had the world's largest Communist Party outside China and Russia, with a million members, with an additional two million people in front organizations. It had a big influence on the government and the armed forces. So what do they do? They organized one of the most dastardly actions we have seen since World War II, a military coup, where they put Suharto in power. Suharto proceeds to kill a million people and wipes out the most powerful social movement in the country. In 1975 he invaded East Timor, killed several hundred thousand people there and wiped out all the secular, radical opposition in the country. Then people are surprised the Islamists are so powerful because the Islamists are the people who were used in 1965 to kill "Reds".
Then you have a new phase, which is the post-Cold War phase, where basically the triumph of the United States and world capitalism totally disarmed even seminationalist politicians, who said, Now there is nothing else to do. Just work with them, serve them. This led to a phenomenal growth in corruption all over the Third World, and not just the Third World, in the First and Second Worlds as well. Massive corruption in politics. Politics became part of corporate life, which they had been in the States for some time, but that process then began to seep through. It's been very difficult for the last 20 years to get elected leaders who are prepared to fight for their own people.
Interestingly enough, we're having this interview in Latin America, and this is a continent that has been in revolt for some time. You have seen the election of Chavez. You have seen the failure to topple Fidel Castro after 40 years of the blockade. You've seen a victory of Lula in Brazil. You have seen the victory of Gutierrez in Ecuador. Evo Morales in Bolivia, came very close to defeating the corporations' candidate. So we are seeing beginnings of a new wave of, let's call it, subnationalism or protonationalism, which wants to resist. But by and large, in Asia and Africa they have, so far, been pliable regimes.
I don't think this can last indefinitely. I think, curiously enough, the war in Iraq and the occupation of Iraq and the substitution of Saddam with a U.S. puppet government, so the oil can be shared out as war trophy is bound to create resistance sooner or later. It may take four years. It may take ten years. We don't know. But it will happen. In that sense, the American empire is no different from other empires. It is slowly sowing the seeds of the forces that will one day confront it.
Clearly, 19th century European imperialism was predicated on racism, the white person's burden, bringing Christianity and enlightenment to the benighted natives. That was then. What about now?
You can't deny the underlying feeling of white superiority in all this. I'll give you a concrete example. The tragedy of 9/11, when lots of civilians were killed in New York and some in Washington, the whole world was forced to weep for them in public. Why? Because they were citizens of the United States of America. When Afghan citizens are killed by indiscriminate bombings, by so-called accidental bombings and the deaths from starvation, these deaths don't count for much. No one will ever build a monument for the Afghan civilians who died in the bombing raids. Just a crude war of revenge, as I called it at the time.
Why not? Why are Afghan lives not as important as any other lives? Because underlying all this is still the belief that we are a superior nation, a superior race, and a superior people.
Look at the cavalier way in which casualties are discussed in the case of Iraq. There was a conference organized by the State Department and its favorite Iraqis and an Iraqi friend of mine attended who wasn't on their list. He told me, "What shocked me was the way they were discussing casualties, how many civilian deaths would be acceptable." He said the figure the Iraqis and the Americans were talking about was 250,000. It shouldn't go above that. A quarter of a million civilian deaths acceptable? When 3,000 deaths are not acceptable in the United States of America, but a quarter of a million Iraqi lives are acceptable, what is that if not the most grotesque demonstration that the lives of these poor Arabs don't matter a damn. The form racism takes is different from the old empires, but it's still there.
Talk about the role of the media in shaping and forming public opinion. For example, the media constantly repeat that Saddam Hussein represents a grave threat to the United States.
This notion of Saddam Hussein being a threat to the United States makes everyone in Europe laugh, including European politicians. Recently, I was at a debate in Berlin at a big theater, 1,000-2,000 people there. I was debating Professor Ruth Wedgewood. She is an adviser to Donald Rumsfeld. To my amazement she suddenly turned to the Germans and she said, I know the reason you are opposed to this war. It's because you're scared of Saddam. Afterwards, people came and told me, "We were really taken aback by that. What does she mean?" I said, "This is what they say in the United States all the time. They frighten the people that Saddam represents a real threat. I'm staggered that they've begun to believe their own rhetoric."
Why is Tony Blair such an enthusiastic partner of George Bush in his war on terrorism?
In terms of foreign policy, I think Blair decided very early on after he came to office that he was going to continue the deals Thatcher had done with Reagan. What these deals have done, basically, is they have locked the British Ministry of Defense into the Pentagon. It's to the point now that when the Pentagon upgrades, the British Ministry of Defense, which doesn't need to do it, has to do it because it's part of the same system.
Now the British are totally committed to this alliance. It reminds you of what Charles DeGaulle used to say when he kept on vetoing British entry into the Common Market. He used to say that Britain will always be an American Trojan horse in the European Union. How right he was. Blair likes to go and tell the Europeans, I'm close to Bush. I can influence him. He tells Bush, It's important I'm in the European Union, because I can make sure that your views there are properly defended.
Underlying Blair's servility to the United States is how he sees the country. Britain is a medium-sized, northern European country. It no longer has an empire. The country has quite an exploitative deregulated system, which attracts foreign capital because wages and taxes are low.
This is what Thatcher achieved. Blair believes this has to be maintained because he doesn't have any other vision. One of the ways it can be maintained is by hanging alongside the United States in whatever they do, sharing part of the proceeds and being seen by Washington as a loyal ally. It's classic.
I have to also tell you, because it would be one-sided not to do so, that he is hated by large numbers of people in Britain for doing this, including the British establishment, who find that sort of servility to the United States to be incredibly debased and vulgar and low. Both within the mandarin civil service and the military establishment there is a lot of nervousness and hostility to the war on Iraq. For the first time also in Britain you have a majority of public opinion against the war. So Blair is really putting his future on the line.
The United States, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been fervently looking for an oppositional force to replace it. They tried Noriega in Panama, Qaddafi in Libya, and the Cali and Medellin drug cartels. Now they've zoomed in on Islam, fundamentalist and militant, as the new archenemy.
It's crazy to make Islam into a monolith. It's just as divided as any other part of the world. The maximum number of people al-Qaeda has, 3,000? Maybe 4,000? Though no one has agreed on it, it's definitely somewhere between 2-3,000, ensconced in different parts of the world, including Europe and the United States. So how come this can't be destroyed? It could be. But the problem is not al-Qaeda. The problem is the conditions that create this mood, which drives young people to despair. That will not stop unless the central problems in the Middle East are solved.
Bernard Lewis has achieved almost iconic status in the West as an expert on Islam and how Muslims think. He wrote an essay for "Atlantic magazine" in 1990 called "Roots of Muslim Rage", in which he used the term "clash of civilizations." That term was picked up later by Harvard University professor, Samuel Huntington. He wrote a book called "The Clash of Civilizations". Now you have written a book called "The Clash of Fundamentalisms". What do you think about this so-called theory?
The Lewis theory is largely based on a view of a world that I don't recognize. I grew up in that world and have traveled throughout it. There is rage in the Muslim world, obviously, and the reasons for that rage are the imposition of a settler state in the heart of the Arab world and the attempt to destroy the Palestinians and their identity. I know in the United States this is a sensitive subject, but before the formation and foundation of Israel, there was very little anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Large Jewish communities lived in the Maghrib, North Africa, or in the heart of the Middle East, in Egypt and Iraq.
The Baghdadi Jews in particular had a special flavor culturally in terms of cuisine, in what they did, in how they operated, and many of them were founders of the Egyptian and Iraqi Communist Parties. That's how integrated they were in those societies. This was all destroyed by the Zionist project and the creation of Israel. Obviously, the result has been a lot of crude anti-Semitism. But please don't think it comes out of something, which is fundamental to Islam. It doesn't. It did not exist in that shape or form until the 20th century.
So the rage of which Bernard Lewis talks is a different rage from the rage I see because he sees it as inherent in civilizational differences. I see the differences as being fundamentally political and economic.
If you read Huntington's book, you see that he has these formulas, which he's now modified subsequent to 9/11. He said, we, the West, are a Judeo-Christian civilization. We are now confronted by all the other civilizations: Islamic civilization, Chinese civilization. African civilization he didn't mention because he said he was not sure such a thing existed. The big danger, he said, came from a possible unification of Chinese and Islamic civilizations. When you read between the lines, these are coded messages for the phenomenal growth of the Chinese economy and Chinese exports to the U.S. and the centrality of Arab oil. That is what all this civilization nonsense boils down to.
In "The Clash of Fundamentalisms", I said it was a clash between a tiny religious fundamentalism, which was very retrogressive and retrograde, but that the parent of all fundamentalisms was American imperial fundamentalism. This empire, the most powerful in history, now uses its economic and military muscle to reshape the world according to its needs and its interests. Resistance against this is bound to rise. At the moment, it's taken the form of an ultrareligious fundamentalism, which will not work because it has nothing to offer. But this will change. Other resistances will come.
The average American might say to you, "Well, even though you've said many interesting things, I'm not quite sure." How do I get a better understanding of what the United States is doing and how the world system operates?
One of the suggestions I would make is don't ignore history. One of the things that has happened in our culture as a whole is that history as a subject has become devalued. If you read the history of the United States, you will find not just the history of an empire in the making, but you will also find the history of dissent in the United States and you will also find many surprising things. Walt Whitman, for instance, is supposed to be the poet of liberation and anti-slavery and pro-Lincoln, but in his earlier years Walt Whitman was a firm believer in American whites as a superior civilization, which had the right to crush Mexicans because they were a second-rate civilization. There was a lot of ambiguity in the early American poets and writers about American expansionism. This changed by the end of the 19th century, with Mark Twain and with Whitman in his last years, by the way. After the end of the Civil War, he was a deeply shaken person, when he saw how much blood had been spilled.
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I always say to my American friends that America is a very rich country in every way. It is rich economically. It is rich in the dissenting movements that have grown up within it. It's rich also as a country that has committed atrocities all over the world. You have to choose which of these riches you want. Martin Luther King, the year before he was assassinated, said, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own country." People should learn that the most gifted and capable Americans, many of whom were killed by the state, historically are people who have stood up and resisted.
David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado. His latest book is "Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting".