Switchovers and crossovers: “What’s Left?” July 2018, MRR #422

Every elementary schoolchild knows that, after 1492, two food staples common to the “New World” were introduced into the “Old World” via the trans-Atlantic exchange inaugurated by Columbus. I’m talking about potatoes and corn, or maize. What’s not so well known is that maize was substantially undigestible, that potatoes contained low level toxins, and that native Americans processed both heavily in order to make them palatable. Plant breeding and hybridization techniques since 1492 have resulted in far more edible varieties of both maize and potatoes, at the cost of the diversity of the original plant populations.

Both maize and potatoes are considered species complex (superspecies, species aggregate) which, biologically, means a group of closely related species that are so similar in appearance to the point that the boundaries between them are frequently unclear. In fact, the original maize and potato superspecies each contained hundreds, if not thousands of related individual species that could potentially hybridize. One species of maize or potato might not be able to easily cross breed with another species of maize or potato at the far range of their respective genetic spectrums, but that spectrum did allow for gradual, continuous hybridization along the way.

Now, think of the political Left and Right as separate species complex. I’m well aware of the dangers of comparing social phenomena with biological realities. The Nazis were adept at such false comparisons, for example defining the Jews as a biological race and then attributing everything from their physical appearance to their demographic dispersal and communitarian organization to that faux race. I’m using species complex to describe politics not as an analogy but as a metaphor, even as that concept provocatively conveys the political fluidity that individuals within the Left and Right can demonstrate.

On the Left, Victor Serge started as a youngster sympathetic to socialism who became a radical left anarchist before joining the Bolshevik party after the Russian 1917 Revolution. Eventually Serge affiliated with left Trotskyism in opposition to Stalinism, but at every stage he remained highly critical of the Left to which he subscribed. More recently, ex-MMA fighter and anarcho-communist darling Jeff Monson became a Russian citizen and joined the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Moving in the other direction, there is the example of Murray Bookchin. He started out as a Stalinist by virtue of his upbringing, gravitated toward Trotskyism by joining the Socialist Workers Party, and finally developed into an ardent anarchist communist whose pamphlet “Listen, Marxist!” (part of his collection of essays Post-Scarcity Anarchism) became a rallying cry for a whole generation of post-New Left anarchists.

Because the Left is based much more on program and ideology than the Right, political movement within the Left seems more rational. No less sectarian mind you, but there’s the unifying sense that “we’re all part of the Left.” In John Sayles’ well-known short story “At The Anarchist Convention,” when the building manager threatens to call the police to evict the Convention because they refuse to move to a smaller room, “[n]obody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.” They stand together, “arms linked, the lame held up out of their wheelchairs, the deaf joining from memory […] in ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’.” However, such moments of revolutionary solidarity are short-lived, with the Bolsheviks organizing their Cheka two months after the October Revolution and the German SDP resorting to the Freikorps soon after the 1918 sailors and workers soviet revolution.

On the Right, much has been made of “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” described by Matt Lewis in The Daily Beast. Michael Brendan Dougherty calls it “The Libertarianism-to-Fascism Pipeline” in the National Review, but the notion is similar. (This is a veritable four-lane freeway compared to the local road between alt.lite and alt.right.) Not only is libertarianism a unique gateway drug to neo-Nazism, there’s an easy exchange between the two that is belied by their seeming ideological incompatibilities. That exchange might even be considered a conscious—if secret—strategy of the Right generally, as revealed by J.P. Nash in his review of Jim Goad’s Shit Magnet: “If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: ‘Libertarianism now, fascism later.’ We need to preserve our civil liberties now in order to take them away from the morons later, when we create a healthy White society: an organic state with no parties, no elections, no demagoguery, and no politicians—a society where the best rule for the good of all—a society that takes eugenic measures to drain the Goad end of the gene pool forever—a society where the degrading filth of Judeo-Afro-Homo-Chomo-Pomo popular culture is rolled up by a giant dung beetle and plopped into the bottomless pit of oblivion.”

As a revolt against modernity and thus in continuous reaction to the Left, the Right is fundamentally non-rational in its blind appeal to authority, whether that be tradition, belief, divinity, scripture, law, the state, leadership, or charisma. Whether or not the Right’s authoritarian and libertarian wings are in collusion, the Right’s appeal to authority is what Richard Wolin calls the seduction of unreason that disguises its schismatic nature, producing a sectarianism that often puts the Left to shame. For instance, when Martin Luther replaced the centralized authority of the papacy with the decentralizing authority of scripture, what followed was Reformation, Counterreformation, some ten million dead, and eventually almost 50,000 Protestant denominations. And the Right is by no means united in what constitutes proper authority.

But what about individuals who seem to jump between far Left and far Right? Returning to the original biological metaphor, what about movement not within (intra) species no matter how broadly defined, but between (inter) species? Isn’t the latter much more dramatic than the former?

In my classical anarchist days, as a member of the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, I was appalled by the story of “Red” Warthan who became an anarchist in response to Federal gun restrictions but turned Nazi skinhead when he was attacked and beaten up by a crowd of black kids. Perry Warthan is now in prison convicted of murdering a fellow skinhead in his gang for being a suspected police informant. Many a New Leftist turned conservative, among them David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh. A canard of the neoconservative movement is that most started as Trotskyists like Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Not true, although many like Daniel Moynihan and William Bennett began politics as liberals. Today, Andrew Anglin has a similar political arc, going from being an antiracist vegan Leftist to a Holocaust-embracing, neo-Nazi alt.rightist who is currently underground evading subpoenas in a civil suit caused by his vicious trolling. Jason Kessler, one of the organizers behind the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” riot, also began political life as a Democratic supporter of Obama and a participant in Occupy Wall Street. But supposedly such is the “natural” progression of things, in a more extreme form, from the quote attributed variously to Churchill, Clemenceau, or Lloyd George that: “Any man who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no head.”

There are numerous individuals who’ve made a similar if opposite journey from Right to Left, from fascism to liberalism or the Left. Ex-skinheads Timothy Zaal, Christian Picciolini, and T.J. Leyden have told stories of leaving violently racist skinhead gangs to become more tolerant, accepting, liberal, even Leftist. Much less dramatically, GOP stalwarts like Kevin Phillips, David Brock, Michael Lind, and Bruce Bartlett have proclaimed they can no longer support their former conservative agendas and have become moderate, even liberal Democrats. Karl Hess, Joan Didion, Garry Wills, and Elizabeth Warren also come to mind. All this flipping from Left to Right and visa versa can produce a kind of political whiplash that is disconcerting and can make anyone doubt the genuineness of such conversions.

Certainly such inter-political switchovers are sensational, far more dramatic than the slower intra-political evolution we’re usually familiar with. But politics is not biology, and our metaphor is just that, a metaphor. Left and Right are not separate species incapable of cross breeding, even as individuals are perfectly capable of politically crossing over and as movements are capable of cross-pollinating. And of sometimes creating monsters.

In a way it’s misdirected to focus on individuals and their personal reasons for changing politics. A similar caution can be made of political movements. There are social contexts and “the times” when such political conversions occur with greater frequency, specifically during spontaneous grassroots political upheavals and more calculated instances of ideological battle. The Right likes to call those latter moments “culture wars” or even more disingenuously, “metapolitics.” Mao put the lie to this succinctly when he said “politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”

I’ll conclude this discussion of Left/Right political conversions—whether intra or inter—next column by detailing various illustrative social contexts that enhance or inhibit such political crossovers.

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Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, part 1: “What’s Left?” March 2016, MRR #394

VIDAL (loftily): As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—
SMITH (moderator): Let’s, let’s not call names—
VIDAL: Failing that, I can only say that—
BUCKLEY (teeth bared, snarling): Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered—

Best of Enemies (film) 2015
transcript from ABC News coverage, 8/28/68

It was a case of the seven-second delay, or lack thereof. ABC News hired William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal to debate the 1968 presidential nominating conventions in real time on live TV as a way of classing up its coverage. The argument got heated, epithets were exchanged, and the above infamous interchange was broadcast uncensored because no profanity delay was in place.

My columns covering the current state of American electoral politics have a built-in delay, not to prevent obscenity, but as a consequence of this magazine’s print cycle. Prompted by the film Best of Enemies, I’m writing this column in December for an early January deadline in MRR #394, March 2016. I lay out the columns section, including my own, by the end of January, which is the last moment I can make changes to the text. By the time issue #394 gets into your grubby little hands, this column will be over a month out of date, and maybe closer to three. So much for up-to-the-minute electoral coverage and timely political analysis.

The seven-second delay has become ever more ubiquitous, even as the internet has done an end run around censorship in all mainstream media. By tacit agreement, every major and most minor media outlets quickly censored the broadcast, print, and digital images of the Bataclan’s blood soaked dance floor after the terrorist attack of 11-13-15. Yet it’s easy to find the original uncensored picture online. In 1968, when Buckley and Vidal exchanged their insults, they were seriously upstaged by the rancorous floor fights within the Democratic National Convention as well as the carnage of Chicago police run riot outside the Convention. ABC News allowing Buckley to drop the “q-bomb” on live TV was the least of the network’s problems, what with journalists getting beaten up by cops in the streets of Chicago and their contentious, often lurid visuals making the news on TV and in daily papers. By contrast, the well-oiled Republican National Convention earlier in August nominated Richard Nixon on a strict law-and-order platform. The GOP’s appearance of firmness, reasonableness and stability in the face of Chicago’s chaos helped earn Nixon his landslide victory.

Today, we’re faced with the reverse.

The Democratic National Convention (July 25-28) looks to be a snooze, with Hillary the foregone nominee and Bernie promising not to buck the party process. The Republican National Convention (July 18-21) has all the makings of a good old donnybrook, a full-fledged political melee, thanks to Trump’s candidacy. There’s talk of a split convention with a nasty floor fight over who to nominate. The old-white-male GOP establishment is thinking about brokering the convention, with Trump and Carson threatening to jump ship. Simply put, the Republicans are clusterfucked.

If Trump is nominated, he will lose to Hillary. Most observers agree that the Republicans will lose big time, on a par with Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964. If Trump loses the nomination and bolts the Republican Party with an independent presidential candidacy, the GOP will split, and both the party and Trump will lose. This is the Ross Perot Third Party scenario, and it holds to a lesser degree for Carson. The only way that the Republicans have even a chance of winning against Hillary would be if Trump loses the nomination, gracefully accepts the GOP’s decision and throws his full weight behind the party’s nomination. Not fucking likely. Any way you look at it, the Republicans will be bruised and bloodied at the very least, but more likely irreparably splintered into warring factions. In turn, the GOP’s efforts to remain viable are seriously threatened because the unity and respectability of the conservative movement underlying it has completely unraveled.

Tim Yohannan marshaled MRR’s shitworkers into keeping this magazine running after he was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkins lymphoma. No, Tim never promised Mykel Board a columnist position in perpetuity, and yes, he wanted to give MRR to George Tabb who turned it down because he couldn’t figure out how to move the magazine to New York City. For Tim Yo, the single most important characteristic of someone capable of running MRR was being an asshole when required, with the ability to make the hard decisions—like firing columnist Jeff Bale or refusing ads from Caroline Records because of their major label involvement or even pulling out of Mordam Records because Mordam was no longer punk enough—and to take the heat for making them.

But there are assholes, and then there are assholes.

Gavin McInnis argues that “Trump is crass and rude and irrational [and an asshole], but that’s what we need. We need hate. We need fear mongering.” Trump supporters are more than willing to see the GOP crash and burn in order for Trump to win. “The Republicans are pussies,” according to McInnis, and if they can’t get behind a Trump nomination, they deserve to lose. It’s not because clowns like McIinnis have no skin in the political game as a new Canadian immigrant recently turned American citizen. Younger Republicans and youthful conservatives are simply no longer willing to abide by Buckley’s dictum to: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable,” or Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment that: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” They’re prepared to hold onto their conservative principles and make their point come hell or high water, even if it means trashing their fellow Republicans, wrecking the GOP, and destroying the conservative movement.

In supporting a conservative asshole like Trump, a younger generation of 30-to-40-something conservatives is ignoring the legacy of yet another conservative asshole, William F. Buckley, Jr. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg praised Buckley for employing “intellectual ruthlessness and relentless personal charm to keep that which is good about libertarianism, what we have come to call ‘social conservatism,’ and what was necessary about anti-Communism in the movement. This meant throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time. The Randians, the Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the me-too Republicans: all of these groups in various combinations were purged from the movement and masthead, sometimes painfully, sometimes easily, but always with the ideal of keeping the cause honest and pointed north to the ideal in his compass.” (NR Online, 10-27-05) Buckley relentlessly purged the conservative movement with the excuse of ridding it of anti-Semites and wingnut conspiracy theorists. According to Paul Gottfried however, Buckley’s “victims became ‘wing nuts’ by virtue of having been purged and slandered. The purges were not a passing or merely ancillary aspect of conservatism; they were a defining characteristic of a movement, whose function was to stake out ground where the Left had been the moment before.” Gottfried calls this Buckley’s “Great Purge” in service of building, maintaining and defending a respectable “Conservatism, Inc.”

But the GOP’s many tendencies and factions were never purged and the conservative movement was never purified. After arch-conservatives took control of the 1964 Republican National Convention to nominate Goldwater for his disastrous presidential run, Goldwater’s conservative base was decimated. Moderate-to-liberal Republicans like Nixon and Rockefeller gained ascendency, but the GOP’s conservative wing did not evaporate. Instead, these conservatives went underground and grassroots, organizing from the base up until they elected Reagan in 1980 for eight years of neoliberal dominance. Moderate Republicans are now endangered, and the liberal ones extinct. Today, conservative tendencies and factions abound; not just Randians, Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, Birchers, anti-Semites, and me-too Republicans, but also Tea Partiers and neoliberals, white nationalists and supremacists, New Rightists, AltRightists and neo-reactionaries, evangelicals, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives and social conservatives, lone wolves and conspiracy nuts, libertarians and Establishment Republicans, yada, yada, yada. Is it any wonder that Trump’s candidacy has prompted the GOP to come apart at the seams and the conservative movement to descend into internecine warfare?

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a bad thing, the GOP going down in flames. Hilarious, in fact. I just wish there was some equivalent, serious opposition in the Democratic Party and the wider progressive movement to the juggernaut that is Hillary, Inc. Of course, Bernie will make a valiant primary effort at the Democratic National Convention, but he will lose and just as valiantly accede to the party’s nominee. Maybe Black Lives Matter will stage some level of protest inside or outside the convention, but I don’t see mass leftie protests targeting the Democrats anytime soon. And much as I like an acrimonious, bare-knuckled, equal brawl, that’s not likely to happen either. My prediction at this point in the print cycle is that Ted Cruz will be nominated by the Republicans, but Trump will only grudgingly step aside. With the GOP at less than full strength, Hillary will win the presidency.

Great! Four more years of Republican whining and right-of-center Democratic gloating and nothing ever getting done. If the GOP survives, that is. American politics are so fucking lame and unsurprising. A Public Policy Poll recently asked: “Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?” Of the Republicans who responded 57% were not sure, 13% opposed it, and 30% said they supported it. When it came to Democrats 55% were not sure, 36% opposed bombing Agrabah, and 19% said they supported it. Agrabah is the mythical kingdom in the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Idiots Without Borders: “What’s Left?” November 2012, MRR #354

Doctors Without Borders. Lawyers Without Borders. Engineers Without Borders.

These are three of the best known “Without Borders” international NGOs. They’re among a varied field that includes Action Without Borders, Cars Without Borders, Magicians Without Borders, Words Without Borders, etc., etc. But there isn’t any Business Without Borders, or Capitalism Without Borders because, frankly, these are redundant terms. Google them, and you get, as top listing, an HSBC bank/holding company web page which talks about “helping businesses grow internationally.” Again, a somewhat redundant concept. According to Marx, from its very inception and by its very nature, capitalism expands beyond all national borders, relentlessly and inexorably, through international commerce, colonialism, imperialism and globalization. And indeed, modern capitalism is replete with international features— multinational corporations; globalized markets, labor, and finance; transnational flows of information and capital.

Now comes the tricky part. You see, just because capitalism necessarily goes beyond national borders doesn’t mean it supersedes nationalism or the nation-state. The idea that it can is what I call capitalist utopianism. An example is that, when tensions between European countries were building toward war prior to 1914, a number of intellectuals insisted that capitalism had so interwoven the national economies of Europe that war was impossible and, indeed, unthinkable. Known as Manchester Liberalism in England, the theory was that international free trade would make wars impossible because nations would be prevented from becoming self-sufficient, a requirement for any prolonged war. Then came the first World War—with its mechanized, chemical and trench warfare—which proved to be one of the deadliest conflicts in human history that lasted over four years.

This capitalist utopianism persists in the über idealism of libertarianism, where free market capitalism solves all ills, from ending poverty and providing low-cost quality health care to insuring peace and preventing global warming. Libertarians like Ron Paul have made the equation explicit with respect to that bane of nationalism and the nation-state: war. International free trade equals world peace. Even the crypto-fascism of neoliberalism—which combines domestic privatization, deregulation and financialization with an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy—considers the forceful spread of democratic, neoliberal free market regimes to be the sine qua non of a new world order of international peace. Thankfully, libertarianism remains an untried experiment. As for neoliberalism, we have only to consider George W. Bush’s prediction, about how overthrowing Saddam Hussein and installing democracy in Iraq would bring democracy to the entire Middle East as regime after regime fell like dominoes before the power of neoliberalism’s democratic capitalism, to realize the absurdity of this utopian experiment. The Arab Spring, which allowed fundamentalist Islamic elements to come to the fore in the affected societies, has proven yet another negation of neoliberalist efforts.

The fantasies of free market advocates aside, we do need to take note of two trends that seem to run counter to the exigencies of nationalism and the nation-state. The first is the tendency of capitalism to create supra-national blocks in developed regions of the world, what was once called the First World and which is now referred to as the Global North. Capitalism seems to foster transnational political and economic unification, from the very loose North American free trade zone under NAFTA’s rubric, to the much more coherent European Economic Union that has morphed into the European Union. This is the case even as the EU experiences major problems that threaten its stability and the viability of the Eurozone. In the second tendency, global capitalism is witnessing the fracturing of existing nation-states into ever smaller units, and even failed states, in the underdeveloped regions of the world. This geography was once covered by the term the Third World, and is now called the Global South. The journalist Robert D. Kaplan described this well in his book The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet, a cumbersome title that nevertheless aptly sets forth the main factors contributing to this disintegration of the nation-state. Whether these tendencies are long term, or temporary, remains to be seen.

These two tendencies, by the way, also run counter to the gross oversimplifications promulgated by the Left, which takes the opposite tack by blaming every social ill, from poverty to global warming, on capitalism. Marxism in general, and Leninism in particular, with a good deal of left anarchism thrown in for good measure, consistently defend the notion that something like war is due to capitalist competition for markets, or in the case of Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, to inter-imperialist rivalries. Nationalism and the nation-state are there, beneath the surface, but almost as an afterthought, powered almost entirely by the motor force of capitalism. In turn, certain anarchist tendencies will proclaim that “war is the health of the state,” or that “patriotism is a menace to liberty,” or that “nationalism is the weapon of the state,” sometimes going so far as to subsume capitalism’s internationalist tendencies to the requirements of nationalism and the nation-state. The transnational and disintegrative trends of capitalism described above mitigate against both Marxist and anarchist ideology.

Indeed, nationalism and the nation-state appear to have gotten the better of international socialism, whether Marxist or anarchist. In the days when “real, existing socialism” stretched from the Elbe River to the South China Sea, with outposts in Africa and the Caribbean, Stalin’s “socialism in one country” was orthodoxy, and about the only folks socialist countries fought with and invaded were other socialist countries. Whether it was border clashes between the Soviet Union and Red China, or border clashes between Red China and Vietnam, or the Soviet Union invading Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or Vietnam invading Cambodia, the demands of nationalism and the nation-state trumped the internationalist pretensions of Marxist-Leninist socialism every time. As for anarchism, from the start its strident anti-nationalism did not include a critique of ethnic/national identity. Then, anarchism acquired a sympathy for and a support of national liberation struggles, socialist or otherwise. Finally, anarchism developed a balls-out national anarchist tendency under the syncretic influence of neofascism.

Don’t get me wrong. Socialism—whether Marxist, Leninist, or anarchist—hasn’t made much of a dent against capitalism, either. Capitalism is the economic system, de facto or de jure, the world over. Capitalist globalization is the reality, whether we like it or not. Capital and the nation have managed to kick socialism to the curb, historically speaking. Whether or not capital has kicked the nation to the curb is still up in the air. This is not to say that capitalism, any more than nationalism or the nation-state, is natural and inevitable. However, you have to acknowledge what is, in order to comprehend what might be.

History and Empire: “What’s Left?” August 2007, MRR #291

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

-George Santayana

Let’s hope that nobody actually believes that if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it.

First off, and by definition, history is the chronicling of that which is unique. The battle of Hastings, in 1066, is a unique event, signifying the Norman conquest of England, another unique event. Analogies can be drawn, comparisons can be made, patterns can be discerned, but in the final analysis, the battle of Hastings in 1066 is a unique historical event.

Saying that historical events are unique does not make them discrete. Of course cause-and-effect, developmental trends, even evolving patterns can be found in the historical record. Seeing connection and meaning in historical events should be a descriptive rather than a prescriptive exercise, however. Not every revolution becomes a tyranny, and not every democracy becomes a dictatorship. And while it is possible to learn from history, both the lessons and their application are far subtler than Santayana’s aphorism would indicate. Indeed, it is often an obsessive effort to learn from the past that hamstrings those who would make history in the present.

There is the old adage that the American military is always fighting the last war this time around. Thus, the Pentagon was attempting to wage a conventional, WWII-type or Korean-style war in Vietnam, against an enemy who relied heavily on unconventional guerrilla methods. The inability of the US to come to terms in a timely manner with the new type of warfare that Vietnam represented is credited with helping to defeat America’s military intervention in Southeast Asia.

Chalk it up to neoconservative hubris as to why Junior Bush’s administration wasn’t at all concerned with learning lessons from Vietnam before they invaded Iraq. Delusions that US troops would be greeted as liberators, that regime change and free markets would be sufficient to rebuild Iraq into a shining example of freedom and democracy, and that a free, democratic Iraq would bring peace and stability to the region were the blinders that kept US policymakers from anticipating that the US invasion would eventually be met with popular resistance.

Called unconventional, guerrilla, low intensity, or asymmetrical warfare, it’s a venerable military strategy by no means limited to Vietnam. The American colonists used a version of it as part of their overall military strategy to win independence from Britain. It’s a myth that this kind of military strategy guarantees victory to those who employ it. America quelled just such a popular insurrection in the Philippines from 1899 to 1913, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the process. The US and UK helped defeat a Communist-led, Yugoslav-supported partisan insurgency in Greece after the second World War, with a considerably smaller death toll thanks to Stalin’s failure to support the guerrillas. Military juntas in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil suppressed varying degrees of domestic resistance, rebellion, and revolution with “dirty wars” in the 1970s that disappeared, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of their respective citizens. Had the US anticipated the possibility of guerrilla resistance, and the need for a counterinsurgency strategy from the get go, the Pentagon would not have invaded Iraq with minimum military force and minimum contingency planning.

The lack of historical depth exhibited by the neocons actually can be put at the feet of a general American historical amnesia. One would be hard pressed to find a thorough philosophy of history espoused by any of the rightist tendencies in this country, which for the most part are homegrown and quite parochial. Those folks who like to wear Nazi uniforms and give the Roman salute have an alien feel to them, their whole shtick imported from Europe. It is in Europe that we can perceive a cyclical view of history, a la Oswald Spengler, that’s embraced by the right, in which history repeats, not out of ignorance, but from design. The American Left also gets its sense of history from Europe, in particular from European Marxism with its progressive stage schema of history. Even anarchists, long on a critique of state power, derive their economics and historical philosophy largely from Karl Marx. And it was Marx, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, who said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

The Left has a particularly slavish devotion to learning from history, to endlessly breaking down and summing up the lessons of the past. Walk into the general meeting of any ecumenical Leftist organization, say Bay Area United Against War or the Peace and Freedom Party. Find an opportunity to ask the people at the meeting what they think of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Then sit back and watch the shit fly. Or, to quote Loren Goldner:

What I really wanted to write you about is my inability, 90 years on, to shake free of the Russian Revolution. Symptoms: in Ulsan (South Korea) in December, the worker group there asked me to speak on the differences between Rosa and Lenin, which I did (not terribly well, and with a very mediocre interpreter). In no time we were deep into a two-hour discussion of what happened in Russia in the 20’s (the agrarian question). And this was not some cadaverous nostalgia piece as might be served up at a Spartacist League meeting, but with intense back-and-forth and questions and furious note-taking. The point is that no matter where you start out, somehow the question of “what went wrong in Russia” comes front and center. (“Left Communism and Trotskyism: A Roundtable,” 2007)

Goldner’s rather sad observation, that the Russian Revolution is still a pivotal question for the Left, speaks to something in the culture of the Left itself. For Maoists, who pretty much accept the Bolshevik role in the 1917 Revolution as sacrosanct, the issue shifts to debating Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. For the Bolsheviks themselves, questions about the lessons to be learned from the French 1789 Revolution, as amended by the 1871 Paris Commune, were paramount.

Trotsky’s claim that Stalin’s consolidation of power marked the Russian Revolution’s Thermidor notwithstanding, Lenin and the Bolsheviks helped insure that 1917 was not a repeat of 1789. In turn, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were two of many reasons why the Chinese revolutionary experience was not a rerun of the Russian. Thus historical debate on the Left advances, even though the Left’s obsessive historical framework is never superceded. If only this were the case when it comes to discussions about the analogy between the United States and the Roman Empire.

“President and emperor, America and Rome: the matchup is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can’t help yourself.” So says Cullen Murphy in an excerpt from his recent book in Vanity Fair. (“The Sack of Washington,” June 2007). He goes on to contend that some parallels between America and Rome do hold up, “though maybe not the ones that have been most in the public eye. Think less about decadence, less about military might-and think more about the parochial way these two societies view the outside world, and more about the slow decay of homegrown institutions. Think less about threats from unwelcome barbarians, and more about the powerful dynamics of a multi-ethnic society. Think less about the ability of a superpower to influence everything on earth, and more about how everything on earth affects a superpower. One core similarity is almost always overlooked-it has to do with ‘privatization,’ which sometimes means ‘corruption,’ though it’s actually a far broader phenomenon.”

Murphy’s nuanced comments do not directly address the question haunting many who compare America to Rome. Has America stopped being a republic and instead become a full-blown empire? Between the polar opposite positions of America as a reluctant defender of freedom and democracy worldwide, and America as an imperial enterprise from its colonial origins, arguments have been advanced that the US became an empire when it assumed Manifest Destiny, asserted the Monroe Doctrine, won the Spanish-American War, entered the first World War, or emerged from the second World War. This is similar to the argument on the Left as to when the Russian Revolution went bad. It’s also a misguided concern based on a false distinction.

America’s founding Federalist fathers were also obsessed with the example of Rome, of a freedom-loving republic degenerating into an autocratic empire. As they saw things, a central dilemma was the one posed by Montesquieu, an Enlightenment political philosopher who claimed that “it is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist.” The greater the territory governed, the less republican the government, with empire being the logical outcome of government over a wide territory. Two consequences followed if Montesquieu’s principle was rigorously adhered to, according to the Federalists. First, the new nation of the United States would have to break up into much smaller units in order to preserve their republican form of government, resulting in “an infinity of little, jealous, clashing tumultuous commonwealths” according to Alexander Hamilton. Second, each of these tiny, relatively homogeneous republics would be dominated by one or two factions, read special interests, whose particular interests were not necessarily the same as the interests of the community as a whole.

In Federalist Paper number ten, an essay that should be familiar to anyone who has studied US history in high school, James Madison advanced a novel solution to this dilemma. He astutely argued that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” Conflict between factions was the most important threat to liberty, property, and stability in a republic, for which the cure was not direct democracy. Direct democracy would simply result in a dictatorship by the majority in which, to paraphrase the old John Birch Society, 51% of the people could vote to take away the toothbrushes of the other 49%.

Madison advanced the idea of a republican government of elected representatives that would eventually involve a constitutional system of separated powers, guaranteed rights, and checks-and-balances. His point in paper number ten however is that a representative republic will be able to cover a much larger territory and still remain a republic. More territory means more people, and thus a greater quantity and variety of factions under a single government. He assumed that the competition between a large number of factions with disparate interests would prevent any one faction from attaining a majority and ruling unilaterally. He also assumed that the future United States would continue to expand to the west.

Federalist Paper number ten makes the question of whether America has transitioned from a republic to an empire a la Rome entirely superfluous. Madison and other Federalists intended all along to create a hybrid, a republican empire. What we have in the United States, from the beginning then, is the fusion of a republic (representative democracy, constitutionally backed rule of law and guaranteed rights) with an empire (a penchant for territorial expansion, and for projecting power beyond its borders). No doubt the Federalists saw their solution to Montesquieu’s problem as offering the best of both worlds, republican government with expansive ambitions. Today, we can see that this sewing together of republic and empire in the United States has produced a Frankenstein monster, a monstrous hybrid that seeks nothing less than the end of history, as when Francis Fukuyama wrote:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. (Summer 1989, The National Interest)

Attacking Iran: “What’s Left?” May 2007, MRR #288

One sign of serious mental illness is when an individual does the exact same thing over and over, each time expecting a different outcome.

Junior Bush militarily attacked Afghanistan in 2001, the first campaign in his international War on Terror. Lip-synching the neoconservative refrain that combating terrorism may require preemptive war, Bush applied the solution favored by his neocon advisors, regime change. The war was expected to be short, and result in a free, democratic and grateful Afghanistan. Today, and despite having ostensibly turned over military operations to NATO, the US accounts for over half of the 50,000 troops in the country that are fighting a Taliban guerrilla insurgency on the rebound. Acts of terrorism are on the increase throughout the region and Pakistan’s western provinces are a de facto jihadist state. Expecting a spring offensive, the Pentagon moved a brigade of 3,200 soldiers originally destined for Iraq–the 173rd Airborne–to Afghanistan, according to a 2-14-07 CNN report. And the US is haranguing its NATO allies not just to commit more troops, but also to commit them to much more dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

The Numbnuts in Chief then invaded Iraq in 2003, round two of the War on Terror. Preemptive war and regime change in Iraq were expected to be a cakewalk according to most neoconservatives, with the citizens of that country greeting American troops as liberators, showering them with flowers and candy. Freedom and democracy in Iraq, in turn, were supposed to spread throughout the region, bringing about peace and an end to tyranny in the Middle East. Today, the 152,000-plus US soldiers in Iraq, in addition to 15,000 troops comprising Junior Bush’s miniscule Coalition of the Willing, are ass deep in a Sunni jihadi insurgency, and a bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shias fueled by Shia dominance in the new national government. Iraq is on the brink of splitting into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish mini-states, the entire region has been destabilized, terrorism is on the rise throughout the Middle East, and Iran appears to be the primary beneficiary of all of this. As I begin this column, the US House of Representatives has just passed a toothless, non-binding resolution condemning Junior Bush’s 20,000 troop surge.

Rumor has it that, sometime this spring, the lesser Bush intends to follow the advice of various neoconservative pundits to launch the third installment of his War on Terror with a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “As cited by former CIA officer Philip Giraldi in the most recent edition of American Conservative, Bush’s charges that Iran is supplying bombs to Shi’a militias to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq; the seizure by U.S. forces of Iranian diplomatic and intelligence officials there; the deployment of two aircraft carrier groups with a flotilla of minesweepers to the Gulf; the supply of Patriot anti-missile batteries to Washington’s allies in the region; the unprecedented appointment of a navy admiral and former combat pilot as the head of Central Command; the ‘surge’ of as many as 40,000 troops into Iraq; persistent reports of U.S. covert operations inside Iran-all suggest that Washington is preparing for a military confrontation, and soon.” (Jim Lobe, “The Neo-Con Dog That Isn’t Barking,” Inter Press Service, Feb. 16, 2007)

Israel will be America’s partner in this operation, if not its avant garde. A 2-19-07 BBC report claims that “US contingency plans for air strikes on Iran extend beyond nuclear sites and include most of the country’s military infrastructure,” including “Iranian air bases, naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centres.” Neocon true believers have long insisted that the goal of such a military first strike must go beyond merely deterring Iran’s nuclear weapons development capabilities, all the way to regime change.

As I finish this column, Iran has not yet been attacked. I hope MRR readers are not witnessing US/Israeli military action against Iran as they read these words. By now it ought to be clear that a preemptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities amounts to strike three in a disastrous foreign policy that cannot possibly bring peace, democracy, prosperity, or stability to Iran, let alone to the Middle East. If the idiocy of the neocons has prevailed however, let me offer a few predictions about the consequences of military action against Iran, just to see how close I come to the unfolding reality.

There will be tremendous collateral damage in Iran in the form of civilian deaths, property and infrastructure destruction, and radioactive pollution that will allow the country’s theocratic hardliners to eliminate all opposition and consolidate their power. Iran’s Shi’ite allies in Iraq will stage an uprising with Iranian arms and perhaps Revolutionary Guard intervention throughout the south that, with the Sunni insurgency in Anbar province, will drive US forces out of all but the Kurdish parts of Iraq. Moderate, pro-western Muslim regimes will be unwilling and unable to draw any distinction between American and Israeli foreign policies, and it will be assumed that they are identical by the entire Muslim world. Muslims worldwide will be outraged as the region between Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast and Pakistan’s autonomous western provinces descends into chaos, resulting in a dramatic increase in international terrorism against US, Israeli, Jewish, and Western targets. The international flow of oil will be severely disrupted, due to Iranian economic retaliation and Revolutionary Guard attacks on Persian Gulf shipping, bringing about a worldwide economic depression.

Is Junior Bush so mentally addled, or so much a tool of the neoconservatives, that he would risk even part of the above coming true? Are the neocons completely insane in their apocalyptic brinksmanship? It might be a bit more insidious than that. Joshua Micah Marshall first hit upon what’s actually going on in his April 2003 Washington Monthly essay “Practice to Deceive,” when he argued that far from being a nightmare scenario, chaos in the Middle East is what Bush and his neocon hawks have in mind.

The model here is the second World War and its aftermath, particularly in Europe. Then, an entire continent had collapsed into chaos as a consequence of savage warfare. The Western allies-France, Britain, and the US-used the opportunity of that chaos to reshape Europe. Borders were redrawn, old enmities as between France and Germany were buried, and authoritarian countries like Germany, the western part at least, were transformed into showcase democracies. Indeed, it was the successful democratization of both Germany and Japan after the war that is the cornerstone to the neoconservative delusion of democratizing the Middle East. Instead of seeing the widening instability in the region as evidence of some fundamental strategic bankruptcy, neoconservatives interpret the growing chaos as a vindication of their imperial designs, an affirmation of ur-neocon Leo Strauss’s implied theory of “creative chaos.” Indeed, the neocon recipe assumes that a whole lot of eggs will have to be broken in order to make this democratic omelet. Thus, Condoleezza Rice could oversee Israel’s devastation of Lebanon and callously call it “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

I needn’t point out that Lebanon hasn’t turned out the way Bush and Co. wanted either.

The notion that geopolitical collapse and international chaos will help facilitate the creation of a democratic Middle East makes about as much sense as hoping that the US remains bogged down in Iraq because the potential for imperial collapse and social chaos will make social revolution in this country that much more likely. Aside from the fact that both scenarios are against the interests of working people here and around the world, the proposition that a worthy future can be built upon mountains of corpses is extremely dubious. Unfortunately, mountains of corpses are all but guaranteed in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

Recently, one neocon pundit after another revealed in Vanity Fair (11-3-06) that they believe Bush bungled Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, that Bush didn’t commit the manpower and resources to do the job right, that Bush compromised away their vision of democratic imperialism to traitorous State Department “realists,” that Bush wanted to talk their talk but was unable to walk their walk. It’s hard to sell the public on “creative chaos,” so it’s CYA time for the neoconservatives, who are now making excuses for why things didn’t turn out quite the way they’d planned. Junior Bush may very well have been incompetent and done a half-assed job implementing the neocon agenda. Yet complete devotion to democratizing the Middle East would not have accomplished much more. As admirers of the influence wielded by the Roman Empire at its prime, neoconservatives have great difficulty accepting that the US has neither the troop levels, military strength, or imperial will to emulate ancient Rome.

If the neocons remain wedded to their delusions despite the facts, why then are they not more excited by the prospect of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities sometime this spring? Journalist Jim Lobe writes that “[I]f an attack on Iran is on the near-term agenda, the neo-conservatives have been decidedly off-message. […] This tack may simply be a ruse to lull anti-war forces into complacency. Or it may reflect a fear that, given their record on Iraq, beating the drums for war with Iran may prove counter-productive […]. Or it may indicate that prominent neo-cons have somehow lost touch with the hawks in the White House and Cheney’s office who are now determined to go to attack Iran this spring.”

Whether the neocons are lying low so as not to attract undo attention to an imminent US/Israeli military strike on Iran, or perhaps know “that any such attack is still some time off, if it takes place at all” (per Jim Lobe), will be obvious by the time this issue of MRR officially hits the newsstands. I for one have no desire to count up how many of my predictions about the consequences of a military strike on Iran proved to be on the mark.

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