Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kristoff: "They want to be just like us!"

When I recently criticized the "Western" ideology which contorts the events in Egypt to fit the pre-packaged "they want to be just like us!" mold, this is precisely the sort of filth I had in mind.

The entire set of assumptions that Kristoff uses to "understand" recent events in Egypt are problematic. Take, first of all, his invocation of us "Westerners". I ask, again, who is this we? Next, consider the following paragraph:
In 1979, a grass-roots uprising in Iran led to an undemocratic regime that oppresses women and minorities and destabilizes the region. In 1989, uprisings in Eastern Europe led to the rise of stable democracies. So if Egyptian protesters overcome the government, would this be 1979 or 1989?
This is an excellent distillation of the ideological framework undergirding what Kristoff says. One could, in effect, simply take this framework and churn out the rest of his conclusions without even so much as gathering a single piece of information about the concrete conditions in Egpyt. It all follows frictionlessly from a certain framework of discussion that is presupposed and unacknowledged.

But what is content of this ideological framework exactly? It's first component becomes clear if we collapse the interests of all the different groups and classes in the United States into this mythical notion of the "national interest". This is the "we", the "Westerners" of whom Kristoff speaks. All of us, from the Washington foreign policy insiders and multinational corporate elites to the jobless and the disempowered... yes, all of us have the same interests at home and abroad. Yes, we are to believe that all ordinary Americans benefit equally from the foreign adventures put together by the Military-Industrial complex. The slogan "money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation" evidently has no merit whatsoever.

Next, having sold the lie that poor workers and rich corporate elites have the same interests here and abroad, we must explain what these allegedly coinciding interests are. Unsurprisingly, these "national interests" are precisely the same as the interests of the ruling class: e.g. "stability in the region" means stable US dominance and control, "moderation and tolerance" means tolerance of US imperialism, "democracy" means capitalism, etc. Thus the 1979 Iranian revolution was "bad" from the get-go because it through out the US-backed Shah and was therefore hostile to Washington's geopolitical and economic interests in the region. By contrast, the 1989 anti-Stalinist revolutions in the East Bloc were "good" because many of them ended up being subordinate to US interests in the region and were willing to accept neoliberal "economic shock therapy". Again, we see here a perfect embodiment of the binary between "anxious" imperialism and "co-opting" imperialism. At the end of the day, it hardly matters whether the interests of the peoples of these respective regions were well-served by what occurred there: the only criterion for "good" and "bad" here is good or bad for U.S. imperial interests.

A more sober, and factually accurate, analysis of 1979 and 1989 would go as follows: 1979 was an emancipatory, mass-democratic event in which a (deeply unpopular) US-backed and funded dictator was overthrown by an uprising from below. This event opened up space for all kinds of possibilities, and it was not fomented from above by the clerics who subsequently squelched it. It was not inevitable that the revolutionary eruption that created it would be extinguished, it's most impressive gains rolled back. But of course, Washington hardly cares that the gains of the revolution were rolled back, democratic participation drawn down. They only see two states of affairs: one in which they had control, and another in whic they don't. That is, one in which they had a client regime with the Shah, and another in which they no longer had the influence and power that client regimes afford. If Iran is not democratic today, Washington isn't losing sleep over that fact. After all, the US's closest allies in the Middle East are the most repressive and opposed to democracy.

1989 was, for Washington, sort of the opposite of 1979. Again, set aside empty rhetoric from US officials about "democracy" (if you want to know what they think about democracy see what they did in Chile in 1973). What happened, from a ruling class perspective, was this. A global power opposed to US interests (Stalinist Russia) disintegrated into a large number of smaller states that could be, for the first time in decades, brought into the orbit of US influence. Despite the fact that many involved in 1989 uprisings opposed both Stalinist domination and Washington-backed global capitalism, these events are all contorted into the model of pro-capitalist triumphalism: "Finally, now they fulfill their deep desire to be just like us!". This is the manic, co-opting/appropriating maneuver which often figures opposite the fearful, survivalist maneuver that captures the anxious, imperialist response to 1979.

So, the question Kristoff is really asking is this: will this revolution result in conditions favorable or unfavorable to the interests of the US ruling class? The perverse thing, whether he realizes it or not, is that he is substituting this narrow question for the following, more general question: "does this revolution create conditions favorable or unfavorable to the interests of the masses of ordinary Americans?" The obvious answer to the general question is "yes". The clear answer to the narrow question is "no". Anytime the oppressed fight for their own self-emancipation it is a boon to the interests of ordinary people everywhere, and, a threat to the rule of elites everywhere. As I've said, there is a lot we can learn from Egypt right here at home. It's not as though we live in a classless, horizontal society.

Though Kristoff tries to offer, within this frustrating ideological framework, the "counter-intuitive" insight that democratic struggle in Egpyt "might not be that bad after all", I don't think this means we should let him off the hook here. Once we make the distinction between "soft" and "hard" imperialism, between appropriating and anxiety-ridden imperialism, it becomes clear that Kristoff is no progressive. I genuinely believe that he means well, but that's simply not enough. Perhaps some colonial officials really did believe that they were on a civilizing mission in what was called the Third World. But that hardly obscures the barbarity of colonialism and the unequal social relations it presupposes. Moreover, that things should look so distorted from the top should not come as a surprise. It would be stranger, in fact, if the "natural" way that things appeared to a person like Kristoff were clear-eyed and unsentimental about power.

1 comment:

Richard said...

And, then, there was Richard Cohen, terrified over what might happen to Israel if Egypt democratized, saying "We ARE NOT them." Verily, it doth make the head spin.