On Britain’s imperial decline, Gramscian geography, Catalan cryptos, monarchical Brazil and Hungarian state consolidation.
I made the mistake of watching Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday.
Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) there are no videos online of the session as yet but much of what it contains, in the aftermath of the UK assisting with the bombing of Syria, is woefully predictable.
The repeatedly used excuse was that these bombings were “in our national interest” but most of the time this came across as a meaningless adage. Aside from the fact that we don’t want these chemical weapons over ‘ere — and we already know, if they’re going to come from anywhere, it ain’t there — the only other way I can see this being in the national interest is in support of a never-ending proxy war with Russia which noone has anything to gain from.
This reality is lazily disguised but, unfortunately for the political opposition, Jeremy Corbyn’s resolute pacifism, in this case, only seemed to underline the recent conspiracies surrounding his Russian sympathies and give the Tories something further to triggeredly yodel about.
The UK’s role here, though, goes deeper still and this has been wonderfully excavated by Richard Seymour in his latest post on the Syria debacle: “The early days of imperial decline“.
Here is the cri de coeur of an ‘interventionist’. If you set aside everything you already know about this form of politics, it’s hard not to be moved by it. Every week, a new atrocity. Do something. Barrel bombs, chemical weapons. Do something. Gassing of civilians, hospitals demolished. Do something.
Of course it’s wrong in its persistently faux-naive faith that the British armed forces are some sort of armed wing of Amnesty International — a claim made in all sincerity during the Iraq war. The major intellectual error of middle-of-the-road pro-war media men has always been that they think major military undertakings are done for their benefit, in the name of their values. Their identification with the state overrides their political seriousness at such moments.
This is where the UK’s role in such interventions is further undermined.
The idea of a US / Russia proxy war of influence in the Middle East isn’t really that surprising when you consider that you have two narcissists at the helm of each superpower.
Each suffers from the same general imperial malaise, as Seymour outlines, but the political commentary in UK makes it appear particularly like a tired old dog.
Imperial decline is not primarily a matter of military decline, but of political degeneration. If it was about military spending, the US still spends three times as much as China, and ten times as much as Russia. Blood and iron is not all there is to imperialism. A whole matrix of global institutions, trading and property relationships, and overlapping juridical frameworks, emerging since World War II have depended on the ability of the United States to lead politically. Imperialism depends as much on the creative powers of the bourgeoisie as on its tacit threat, held in reserve, to destroy the planet. And as far as the United States goes, its ability to develop the kinds of international property, trade, financial and military frameworks that it wants has arguably been in a state of relative decline since the triumphalist 1990s, the high watermark of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘state-building’.
Where does the UK stand in this? Cameron took office in 2010 with a fairly sizeable contingent of neoconservatives and other hard-Atlanticists exhorting a militantly Blairite foreign policy. Yet, he quietly admitted early on that the ‘special relationship’ was probably diminishing in importance. He began cuts in military spending, which are set to deepen under this government. The Tories have made preserving Trident a totem issue. If this was about military efficacy, they would admit that the military rationale for this expensive Cold War hangover is slender. Even Blair acknowledged as much in his memoir. But to shore up declining international status, and to use as leverage against the Labour leadership, thermonuclear patriotism remains the policy.
Now look at what has recently transpired. It seems probable that the Russian government just, not for the first time, assassinated an enemy in the territory of the British state. Nothing the British haven’t done before, of course. The British government’s vocally bellicose response, aimed as much at taunting Corbyn as anything else, ended with the expulsion of some diplomats and a whimper from Gavin Williamson that Russia should “go home and shut up”.
One gets the strong sense that the centre-right would love nothing more than a new Cold War to give them a sense of purpose, encircle the opposition, reinvigorate the legitimacy of national institutions on a militaristic basis, and re-moralize the means of international violence. And it is possible that the hard-centre could return to power in the United States and use Russiagate to coordinate such an offensive. Yet, not only would it come with a high-risk of falling flat on its face, much like a 3am tweet from Donald Trump, such a policy would be an attempt to simultaneously deny and overcome the reality of imperial decline.
The whole of Seymour’s post is worth reading in full and so I will resist the temptation of quoting it all here but the final point of his post is definitely worth repeating.
And if I’m right to suspect that we’re seeing the beginnings of a longer arc of imperial decline, then Syria is something of a canary in the coalmine. We would be likely to encounter more of these sorts of scenarios, each tending to confirm the global perplexity of the British Left. A Left whose orientations and historical memory developed within a globally powerful empire, and under the tutelage of an even more powerful empire. A Left whose global relevance, even such prestige as it may once have had, depended on that experience. A Left that may, perhaps, at some level, be more attached to empire than it realises.
Further to my previous post “Nationalist Realism” post, which I very much hope to expand upon sometime soon, this final point requires some serious reckoning with.
“Stefan Kipfer: Gramsci as Geographer” — a newly translated interview over on Historical Materialism which considers the spatial in Gramsci’s Marxism and the role of geography in his thought.
Well worth a read as it touches on a number of the criticisms of the Left, and political commentators more generally, tentatively explored on this blog.
It also draws in Henri Lefebvre who warrants a look at on this blog at a later date.
‘Space’ for Gramsci was never just contextual backdrop or singular material condition (let alone a symbol of historical stasis). As condition and product of history, geography is an active force of the multiple rhythms that make up historical time. In turn, Gramsci treated space and scale relationally, showing the mutual imbrication and historical co-constitution of world, nation, region, city and country.
Key in this context is the idea that spatial forms are, among other things, subjects of struggle as well as ‘ingredients’ in political projects, as it were. It is well known (as Panagiotis Sotiris has reminded us most recently) that Gramsci treated the national scale not as a given entity (let alone an ethnocultural or historical essence) but an open-ended field of struggle and a strategic construction site. Gramsci insisted that the national-popular aspect of revolutionary politics, which is not to be confused with nationalism, must be developed in constant interaction with equally open-ended internationalist horizons.
Gramsci made similar points about city and country. Observing debates among fascist intellectuals such as Curzio Malaparte, he saw that claims to urbanity and rurality do not simply express given geographical realities. They can help form historic blocs. Compare Gramsci’s insight, which considered politics as an active force, to contemporary debates in electoral geography, which have a tendency to read right populist and neo-fascism passively, as mere reflections of given settlement forms defined by national statistical offices: suburb, periurb, rural space or small to medium sized town. Exemplified in France by the work of Christophe Guilluy, among others, such spatially determinist readings of the Front National actually corroborate Gramsci’s point. In their passive conception of politics, intellectuals like Guilluy naturalize, and thus lend effective support to frontist political claims by treating small towns, agricultural areas and periurban zones as embodiments of the ‘autochtonous’ people of France and their seemingly spontaneous and inevitable xenophobic impulses.
OpenDemocracy has published an interview with Enric Duran:
Dubbed the ‘Robin Hood of the Banks’ by the mainstream media, the Catalan activist defrauded the Spanish banking system of nearly half a million euros in the period 2006 to 2008. He used the money to fund a range of local and global initiatives aimed at building alternative structures outside the state.
In 2013 he skipped bail and has since been on the run within the EU, living what he calls a “nomadic” existence. For many, Duran is a living symbol of the power of civil disobedience. For others, including the Spanish government, he’s a naive criminal. Either way, his ideas around the right to resist state power and the importance of building autonomous financial systems have gained fresh relevance today, both through the upheavals in Catalonia and the rapid growth of the cryptocurrency sector.
I hadn’t heard of Duran previously but if you need an example of a European leftism circumventing the state through tech and neocameralist enterprise in order to fragment the prevailing order, look no further. The article also gives a shout out to the Zapatistas.
“Integral revolution means comprehensive transformation from below of all aspects of life like culture, economic, social, personal, ecological,” he says. “We achieve this by empowering communities from below to build a new society, new systems that are not based on the state or capitalism.” It’s the familiar goal of prefigurative politics: building a new world in the shell of the old.
I was very pleased to receive a series tweets from a Brazilian reader recently, particularly these two:
I’m afraid I could only read them via the broken English of Twitter’s in-built translator so I cannot say I have read them accurately but the sentiment parsed from those translations I absolutely agree with.
That being said, I cannot profess to understanding the situation as it appears in Brazil but I am heartened to know by own neurotic localism is able to cross oceans. I hoped that would be the case.
Today I’ve been reading a series of short posts from Notes on Liberty, beginning with the latest post: “Monarchical Brazil was not a Conservative paradise“. This speaks particularly to a fascinating and particular history that I hope to become more familiar with.
It says much about what exactly a patchwork Brazil would require secession from and Notes of Liberty‘s other posts, internally hyperlinked, furthers this view of Brazilian “conservatism” as seen by a Brazilian libertarian.
The fact that Brazil’s independence was proclaimed by a Portuguese monarch gives a very special meaning to what means to be conservative in Brazil. Today, in the US, one may call himself a conservative because he defends the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. But in his day Thomas Jefferson was a radical! A rebel who revolted against the British monarchy. Dom Pedro was not exactly a rebel. He wanted, to a great degree, to maintain things just the way they were. Certainly, many of his supporters were afraid of a more radical independence movement. To say the least, Brazil’s independence was a compromise between radicals and conservatives.
Brazilian monarchy avoided many reforms, inspired by classical liberalism, that were happening in other places. To give just one example (in my personal view, the most glaring), Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery (in 1888). I don’t blame Dom Pedro I for this. I also don’t blame his son, Dom Pedro II, who ended up being emperor for the majority of the monarchical period (1840-1889). But the fact is that the monarchy maintained many of the privileges inherited from Portugal, and avoided reforms that Anglo-American conservatives would support.
Brazilian conservatives have to be careful with the use of this word. To be a conservative in Brazil is not necessarily the same as being a conservative in England or the US.
I’d be interested in some recommended readings from any other Brazilian readers. For starters, I’m going to be perusing some of Uri’s translations.
I’m also very interested in what’s going on in Hungary at the moment. After my recent trip to Budapest I came a bit obsessed with the country’s political history.
The result of the recent election is causing considerable upheavel and The Intercept has a decent overview of the current feeling in the country, following a recent mass protest which seemingly brought Budapest to a standstill.
What fascinated me most about the city’s potted political history is that it seemed to have an incredible affect on the national psyche. We visited the Gellért Hill Cave and heard how Christianity in the country’s boomed despite the Soviet banning of all religion because, as a nation, Hungarians felt so downtrodden that many turned to God even when doing so could get you arrested.
This has little to do with Prime Minister Orbán’s reelection but there is a familiar sort of fear at play here. Orbán seems to be taking various strategies of state consolidation to extremes and, on the back of an anti-immigrant platform, has strengthened internal channels too, particularly the state media.
I find this striking considering the country’s still recent history and no doubt that accounts for the scales of the protests.
States spook easily and overcoming state consolidation tendencies is going to take some doing.