Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some Thoughts on Power

I recently became engaged in an internet argument with someone who had accused Emma Goldman of being an agent of British Imperialism. This struck me as a particularly odd accusation and I tried to get to the bottom of it through a discourse with the accuser, always a difficult thing to do through email. But I did this because the person who had made the accusation seemed like a normally cogent and rational person. Perhaps it is needless to say that I received no satisfaction. The person continually failed to make it clear if he really thought Goldman was an actual ‘agent’ of British Imperial forces or just a dupe of that system. I thought that perhaps he were really just claiming that the actions of the US anarchists somehow played into the hands of British interests, and I waited for some evidence for this claim but none was forthcoming, instead I just condescended to with the claim that I didn’t understand the subtleties of British Imperialism. Even in the face of no evidence, I proceeded to argue that even if anarchists like Goldman had somehow played into the hands of the British, it was an entirely unintended consequence of their actions. Similarly, I said, if Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia had served to strengthen the position of the Russian aristocracy, this did not mean that the French Emperor was somehow an agent, or even dupe, of the Czar; it just means that the flow of power is a complex and tricky thing and any action, dissent in particular, can have deeply influential unintended consequences. After a number of emails and condemnations of British Imperialism, I finally realized that this person was just a disgruntled US citizen who saw red whenever he thought of Goldman because he thought she was involved in the assassination of President McKinley for whom he seemed to have a soft spot. Funny enough, this is another accusation for which there is no real evidence. Anyway, I thought it was funny that he would be upset about British Imperialism when one considers the role that McKinley played in US imperialism; it was under McKinley’s rule, after all, that the US annexed Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The sad fact is that many Americans, and I grew up as an American, simply cannot see that US policy has been a clear form of Imperialism for over a hundred years.

But even if my internet adversary does not, I understand mixed effects of actions, even Imperialism. I have opposed US actions in the Middle East since I first became politically involved. And the recent events are typical examples of US Imperial actions. Even right-wing commentators like Eric Margolis continue to point out that the US invasion of Afghanistan has largely been a front for their efforts to find a cheap and reliable way of drawing oil out of the former Soviet states to the north of Afghanistan. Recently the government of Tajikistan gave notice to the US that they have to close the Manas airbase on their territory. But even here one finds mixed results. For example large numbers of Tajik farmers have accused the US of destroying their crops through land grabs, pollution, and carelessness. On the other hand members of the US forces in the country have raised funds to build schools and give healthcare to poor children. Overall, I think one has to opposed Imperialism, whether it is of the British or US variety, because its goals and effects are overwhelmingly problematic. But it should be clear to everyone who is willing to look carefully at any geo-political event that the power flows in multiple directions at once, particularly in advanced Capitalist states, and conceptions of it should be oversimplified. This is the greatest lesson of Antonio Gramsci’s work on Cultural Hegemony which should be read and enjoyed by all.

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