I’ve decided that I have a problem with the imperialism/oppression dialectic that is a prominent feature of the discourse in “radical progressive” discussions, post-colonial studies and other areas. The problem I have is not with its use as an analytical tool, but rather as a shield (less charitably, crutch) to assign blame or a “good guy”/”bad guy” role to actors in contemporary events. The crux of the argument as I understand it as as follows: actor A (the imperialist) coerces via economic/military/other means a collection of people B (the oppressed). A backlash falls upon A as a result of these actions. Because A has more agency than B due to its greater power, the supposition is that the empire has brought this backlash upon itself.
The primary problem with this is that it supposes a parallel history in which A never oppressed B and they lived happily ever after. That is, the status quo is A’s fault and thus A is permanently in the wrong. The secondary problem is that too little attention is paid to the nature of the backlash, who is the agent of this backlash, and what relationship they hold towards B.
Let us take the recent bombings in London as an example. One interpretation of those acts is that the government of the UK was reaping what it sowed by its support of the imperialist agenda as set forth by the US. Or taking a longer view, by its imperialist history. This is not to say that the people in those buses and trains were reaping what they sowed, but as an action played out by institutional agents (the United Kingom/Al-Qaeda), the UK was “asking for it.”
I find this sort of analysis dehumanizing, illogical, and misguided. What are the people in London supposed to do? They should “blame their government,” or so I am told. The UK is a democratically elected government whose actions represent the will of its citizenry. Al-Qaeda is a non-state actor whose actions represent the will of a small minority in most every state that they have a presence. The statement is then that should they choose, a group with little popular support may kill hundreds, even thousands of citizens of a democracy in an effort to influence the political actions of that democracy. This action is the “chickens coming home to roost.”
I have at least two problems with this — the first is that it is absurd to hold a private club with a penchant for blowing things up and killing citizens of countries to weaker humanitarian standards than those countries themselves. As long as you decry the abuses of your own country, you should not give a rhetorical shield to those who are perhaps reacting to those abuses. Unless you are willing to provide a calculus for measuring what constitutes equal retribution. To be trite, should it be an eye for an eye?
The second problem is that those bombs are not the same chickens! The goal of Al-Qaeda is not to correct the ills of imperialism by the West or end the imperialist program, but in fact is to impose a Muslim theocracy on all nations. Just because their letter claiming responsibility cites the occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan as the reason for targeting London doesn’t somehow make them the officially sanctioned actors for those oppressed peoples.
In the end, my fundamental problem with this description is that it somehow makes it OK to bomb trains or buses, and I don’t think it’s ever ok to do that. And most of those who call these recent events “chickens coming home to roost” would agree with that statement. But I find that characterization too reductionist for this event, and reductionist in a rhetorically dubious way.