Sunday, January 30, 2011

Who's "We"?

Sholto Byrnes of the New Statesman asks, "If we are in favour of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, how does this fit with our continuing friendly relations with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf?" This framing of the question dominates much of the English-language media coverage of the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

But who is this "we"?

When foreign policy-makers in the back rooms of Washington decide what they're going to do, it has literally nothing to do with the interests or views of the vast majority of ordinary Americans. To be sure, the discussions in the back rooms include conversations about what they can reasonably expect to get away with, so "public opinion" has some (albeit quite small) bearing in the form of a weak constraint. But the priorities and general political trajectory of the foreign policy establishment represents the interests of the most powerful, not the vast majority. The decision calculus used by Washington to determine what should be done has literally nothing whatsoever to do with my views on the matter.

Yet when debates about foreign policy arise in the mass media in the US, the discussion is almost always focused on the nebulous concept, thoroughly steeped in ideology, of the "national interest". Thus we hear talk of "pro-US" forces, or "Western-friendly" groups. But in what sense is a friend of the US ruling class, such as Hosni Mubarak, a friend of mine? This is absurd.

The concept of the "national interest" assumes that all is well here in the US. It assumes that all US citizens, regardless of class divisions, share some core set of interests in the preservation of the status quo. This is "radically false" as Chomsky recently put it:
The whole framework of discussion is misleading. We’re sort of taught to talk about the world as a world of states, which, if you study international relations theory, there’s what’s called “realist international relations theory,” which says there is an anarchic world of states, and states pursue their national interest. It’s all mythology. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. There are a few common interests, like we don’t want to be destroyed. But for the most part they have very different interests. Part of the doctrinal system in the U.S. is to pretend that we’re all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that’s radically false.
So, to answer Byrnes's misconceived question, I myself (and 99% of U.S. citizens) have never had "friendly relations with absolute monarchies", so I don't see any difficulty whatsoever in standing behind a mass, revolutionary groundswell that is aiming to throw off a brutal, corrupt oppressor.

Let the ideologists for the ruling class worry about how they'll spin their narrow imperialist interests. Ordinary people need not worry themselves with such nonsense. Our task is to find a way to learn the lessons from the struggles in Tunisia and Egypt (and who knows where else next). Our task is to find ways to apply their struggles to our own conjuncture -and this seems to me to rather clearly suggest that mass struggle from below is needed in order to shut down the U.S. war machine and roll back the coming austerity onslaught that is sure to come from our "representatives" in both major parties. When people get together and say "enough is enough", the ruling order cannot but take notice. When people perpetually acquiesce to the "lesser evil" and write flowery letters to their rulers asking nicely for reform, it's not hard for our "representatives" to turn their backs and bow before wealth and power.

UPDATE: It appears that Byrnes has edited and clarified what he means by adding a parenthesis that didn't appear when I first read the post. Now, it reads: "If we – by which I mean the governments of Europe and North America – come out in favour of popular uprisings that sweep away dictators, how do we justify our past (indeed, our very recent) support for autocrats such as Mubarak?", whereas the bits between the dashes did not appear when I first read the piece. Perhaps he read the post?

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