the imperialism/oppression dialectic

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.

0 thoughts on “the imperialism/oppression dialectic

  1. I would say the following:

    These attacks – both New York and London – were not symbolic. Both were targeted directly at financial/military institutions and were designed to cause massive economic damage, thus crippling the machinery of empire (or, in the least, crippling the United States and Britain economically).

    These attacks are not primarily shaped to create political influence, although that is there. They are clearly designed to exact impact upon the functioning of the states themselves.

    It’s true that Al Qaeda is not a revolutionary force fighting a people’s war. They’re not a mass organization; they certainly seek theocracy; and they are funded, essentially, by wealthy people.

    However, these “terrorist networks” were also set up by American machinations after the 1960s – variously through the CIA’s intervention with General Zia in Pakistan, the arming of mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the buildup of the Shah of Iran which then provided the Ayatollahs with certain resources, etc etc. So, in fact, these literally are the same chickens – turning their guns on their masters who abandoned them.

    Arguing that the chickens have come home doesn’t excuse the attacks morally, but I still stand by the idea that the agents who have set up this entire scenario remain, in many many many ways, the United States and British governments. I didn’t even touch on the history of colonization in the Arab states.

    The idea that presupposing a history where “A never oppressed B” is problematic makes no sense to me; the whole purpose of any kind of liberationist/revolutionary analysis is to envision a world where oppression is continually challenged.

    I will agree on this, however – with those same politics in hand, I cannot congratulate or support an organization like Al Qaeda, whose goals are not to bring power to people at large, but rather to institute another oppressive hierarchy. So I agree that my analysis should include a sharp critique of such organizations as well.

    Agh – tired and somewhat incoherent, hope this made some sense.

  2. Excelent post! Somehow, it captured my questioning about most of the analysis of these recent events… By the way, I think I will be posting this translated in my blog (when I have some time).

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