Simpletons, charlatans, and hacks

A response to Phil Greaves

A previous piece here on the paranoid fantasy that is the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal briefly touched on the paranoid fantasies of my own childhood. At six years old, I was convinced that the occasional cruelty of my peers was evidence of an organised conspiracy against me; I even gave it a name. That kind of strict division of the world is pretty common; sometimes it can provide a glimpse at a greater truth. There really is a ruling class and an oppressed class — but this opposition isn’t static; it’s a dialectic. What’s missing in the me-vs-them equation is the possibility of a third term that brings such oppositions into motion. Marx describes the revolutionary quality of the dialectic in his 1873 postface to Volume I of Capital: it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and [does] not let itself be impressed by anything. The last point is essential: when we let ourselves be impressed by things, this essential revolutionary quality is lost.

In the past few days, forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have overtaken large swathes of northern Iraq. The reports coming out of the area are horrific: mass executions of prisoners, beheadings and crucifixions; armed men firing at random from moving vehicles. This Sunni insurgency against the US-backed Iraqi government has raised the possibility that a brief pact might be struck between American imperialism and Iran. It’s also given rise to some phenomenally stupid analyses of the situation. In the middle of all this human tragedy it might seem a little gratuitous to instrumentalise it for the aggressive dismantling of a mediocre essay from a mediocre blogger — but to assent to the depoliticisation of tragedy would be far worse. These events have their causes and their contexts; isolating them from the world as pure and ahistorical suffering only impedes the work of abolishing them. To struggle against something, it’s necessary to first know what it is — and there seems to be a large tendency in the anti-imperialist Left that, while full of correct sentiments, has abandoned any reality-based analysis in favour of static pseudo-dialectical bullshit. Tilting at a windmill and calling it imperialism isn’t just non-productive; it brings the wider movement into disrepute, and allows actual dangers to go unchallenged.

An earlier essay on a similar topic, The Grand Imperial Puppet Show, was met with the quite reasonable objection that I critiqued some tendencies in anti-imperialist thought without really explaining what they were or even demonstrating that they actually existed. It’s in light of this objection that I hope to engage in a close dialectical examination of the fantasist nonsense that is Phil Greaves’ ISIS: An expression of Imperialism in Iraq.

I’m not the first to have some issues with the piece. On the piece itself, a timidly polite comment was met by a thunderous response from Greaves:

either you cant [sic] read, or you;re [sic] just wilfuly [sic] ignorant of everything i’ve [sic] written above. Either way, im [sic] not eager to spend my time recycling “debates” with archaic [?] idealissts [sic].

I don’t bring this up by way of censure; this kind of deliberate refusal to engage with the stultifying and bourgeois ideals of ‘civilised debate’ is laudable, and has a great Leftist pedigree: Marx’s sharp jibes against Bakunin, Lenin’s book-long slapfights with Kautsky. Greaves, who here has the tone of an exasperated teenager who’s just discovered sarcasm, is unlikely to enter this pantheon, but no matter. Going through the essay itself is a slow and utterly thankless task; actually attempting to discern any cogent meaning from it, through all the poorly deployed jargon, angry anachronisms, and vague air of unwarranted self-importance, is like trying to read a carpet. To save some of this pain I’m going to extract the more salient points and address them in turn. Hopefully no damage has been done to the general coherency of the argument (if any such thing exists).

Greaves begins:

While recent developments in Iraq are being portrayed as spontaneous “spillover” from the imperialist war on Syria — still commonly referred to as an uprising, or “revolution” — they are in fact nothing of the sort and in reality represent a culmination of years of covert planning and premeditated imperial policy.

This striking assertion is followed by several paragraphs on the ‘concrete’ political situation in general. Briefly summarised: fascism forms the vital expression of the desperately decaying capitalist class, and as such we can and must view the United States as the ultimate fascist state, with this fascism expressed in aggression abroad. At every turn the concreteness of this analysis is emphasised with steadily rising panic (three times in one sentence!). What he’s doing is indeed concrete in the Marxian sense, in that it perceives the unity of diverse aspects, but that’s a definition rather than a recipe; the things you unify have to make sense first. Greaves’ is a low-grade concrete, and anything built on it is likely to quickly collapse. Rather than making any reference to the actual situation, Greaves throws around abstractions like confetti. Is the capitalist class, despite all appearances, currently desperately decaying? If it is, is the simple presence of decay a sufficient condition for something to be characterised as fascism? Is fascism a sufficient condition for culpability in this precise situation? And exactly how would destabilising Iraq stave off this decay? This isn’t an analysis of the present situation, it’s a layering of ontological signifiers.

However, Greaves does at least attempt to answer the latter question. He identifies two blocs in the Middle East: the GCC/NATO axis of Western powers and Gulf monarchies, and what he calls the Resistance axis. Concerning the former, he notes (correctly) that it is by no means a permanent static alliance, and has historically found many contradictions along the road to its temporary current unity on Iraq. This is a perceptive observation, and if he’d actually kept it in mind rather than throwing it out as a sop to the critics and then swiftly ignoring it in his actual analysis, the whole piece might be less idiotic. Regarding the Resistance axis:

The opposing force of this contradiction is the Iraqi state, or more broadly speaking, Iraq and its regional allies, namely: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and a subdued yet resurgent Russia acting in a minimally supportive role.

This is an interesting choice of names. Sisi’s Egypt, which has made overtures to Syria, Iran, and Iraq, is excluded, presumably because of its Saudi support. So is Qatar, which bet against Saudi Arabia’s proxies in Egypt. These inconvenient facts need to be excised; they’d bring too much reality into this clean symmetrical abstraction of a ‘concrete’ analysis. The presence of the Iraqi state in the axis of resistance is also unusual. The Maliki government has close ties to Iran, but it is also propped up by several billion dollars of US aid and investment, both military and developmental — after all, it’s a US invention, and future imperial adventures may well depend on being able to point to its post-withdrawal stability. What results is a circular argument: the US must be (despite appearances) actually trying to subvert Iraq, because it’s a fascist state and Iraq is (despite appearances) part of the ‘axis of resistance’; Iraq must be part of the ‘axis of resistance’ because the US is trying to subvert it. At no point is the unity of either axis (however temporary) ever demonstrated; it’s presented as an axiom. Given Maliki’s repeated appeals to the US for help against ISIS, maybe someone needs to tell him that he’s actually part of an anti-imperialist bloc.

Greaves continues, by finally explaining why this subversion is taking place:

The imperialists and their allies (clients) are consciously employing militarism — the “vital expression” of capitalism — upon Iraq, Syria, Iran, and all other “lesser” nations in the inevitable quest for domination to expand their superiority and avert their imperial decay — this is the quintessential feature of predatory imperialism.

Sending Iraq into further chaos will stave off imperial decay, therefore if Iraq is heading into chaos it must be because of premeditated imperial policy. Even so, the precise economic processes behind this manoeuvre aren’t clear, even if the profitability of the arms trade is taken into account. Maybe imperial economies are literally sustained by the suffering of the third world. Maybe our class enemies are agents of Mephistophelean chaos, subsisting only from the groans of the vanquished. No other explanation is possible; certainly not Sunni/Shia sectarianism, which Greaves dismisses as a ‘false concept’:

Contrary to all such critical imperialist false concepts, a correct analysis reveals the antagonism within Iraq is in fact entirely political and a result of the principal aspect of the contradiction: the age-old imperial policy of fomenting and excacerbating sectarian and ethnic antipathy to divide, destroy, and dominate the productive forces.

In other words: conflict is not sectarian but political, and its political nature lies in the fact that it takes advantage of sectarian conflict. As it happens I tend to agree that ‘sectarian’ conflict often encodes class-political content, but rather than paying any attention to the actual class composition of Iraqi society Greaves ends up stumbling back into the ontological priority of ethnic divisions.

It’s at this point that Greaves finally brings in something resembling actual evidence for his insistence that ISIS advances constitute a Western plot against Iraq. Many of the groups and class sectors associated with ISIS (he names them: the Naqshbandi militia, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (MICR), the former Ba’athists, Sunni politicans and defecting Iraqi army officers) have, it’s true, been armed and funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. ISIS may well have also received Saudi funding for their operations in Syria, and now the US is (pretending to, in Greaves’ strange cosmology) oppose a group its allies may well have helped create, and doing so in support of its Iranian enemies. Such strange alignments have happened before. The Lebanese Civil War briefly had Syria and Israel on the same side, that of the Maronite Christians, while they technically remained at war. During the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, India initially supported the besieged Tamils, until a ceasefire was reached: under its terms they were responsible for disarming the Tamil liberation fighters. Many Tamils refused to lay down their weapons and began a guerilla campaign against the Indian peacekeeping forces; eventually the Sri Lankan government, upset at the presence of Indian troops on ‘its’ soil, began covertly funding the Tamil groups to continue their struggle. It was a grim and absurd farce, but the withered imagination of Phil Greaves doesn’t seem to be able to admit any sense of the absurd. In his static contradiction, ISIS may be receiving support from the Saudis, so:

ergo: the NATO/GCC axis.

Earlier, Greaves took pains to point out the transient and contradictory nature of what he calls the NATO/GCC axis, now this posture has entirely vanished. This ‘axis’ is an arbitrarily defined bloc: GCC members Saudi Arabia and Qatar still have frosty relations over Egypt, with Saudi Arabia threatening blockade; the Saudis have also been revealed to support Taliban groups killing NATO forces in Afghanistan. We’re told that the interests of this bloc align in Iraq (as they actually appear to do in Syria) — but why should this be assumed to be true, when every sign points to the opposite being the case? To be fair, Greaves pre-empts this objection, and counters it with some vague and pompous piffle:

To deny this rational knowledge is to deny concrete analysis, deny historical materialism, the totality of imperialism, to suggest it does not exist beyond the abstract, and that there are no classes employing all means available to uphold it.

Calling something rational knowledge, concrete analysis, and historical materialism doesn’t make it so. Saying that objecting to a shoddy and speculative reading of the situation in Iraq means denying historical materialism betrays a very low regard for the practice. Still, there are some more specific rebuttals:

Are we supposed to believe that the allies (clients) of US imperialism are openly funding and arming such reactionaries against the will of their imperial sponsor, and that it is impotent to stop them? Can anyone but an utter simpleton, charlatan, or partisan hack posit such an apolitical reductionist absurdity?

To begin with, they’re not openly funding ISIS reactionaries at all. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any links to the group, and while (let’s be honest) they probably do exist, it’s hardly hackery or absurdity to propose that yes, the US is powerless to stop them. The Saudi ruling class is wealthy and powerful, it invests heavily in NATO states, and for US imperialism to function effectively in the wider Middle East it needs to maintain Saudi acquiescence. Refusing to at least engage with the possibility that this might be the case, rather than spitting antiquated epithets at it, belies a profound political naïveté dressed in the language of ‘concrete’ Marxism. This is all poorly founded speculation, and there’s nothing wrong with that — but it doesn’t put you in a position to start calling others charlatans.

To summarise, then, Greaves argues that the US wants to destabilise Iraq because Iraq is part of an axis of resistance, and that Iraq is part of an axis of resistance because the US wants to destabilise it. NATO and the Gulf states have competing interests, but they are aligned in the case of Iraq, because Greaves says so. Imperialist powers want to partition Iraq because doing so will expand their superiority, whatever that means. To do this, the US is supporting an ISIS insurgency it pretends to oppose against an Iraqi state it pretends to support. All this makes about as much sense as Milhouse’s insistence that his parents are reverse vampires. Where does Greaves get this stuff? Quite a few of the references on his blog post link back to himself; most of the others go to similar ill-thought screeds, or, the universal clearing-house of speculative idiocy. Greaves gives the appearance of being a shambolically dedicated amateur joining the dots and making strange patterns, a Brown Moses of the Left. Has he lived in the Middle East? Has he any actual expertise in international relations? Has he fled from the State Department with a briefcase full of documents? Or is he just a computer programmed by the CIA to confuse the Left into paralysis? He certainly writes like one.

Certain soi-disant anti-imperialists will go through astounding conceptual acrobatics if it means not ever having to admit that Western imperialism is capable of fucking up. For people who claim to be Marxists and internationalists, they have a faith in the omnipotence of empire that would shame the staunchest patriots. The idea that the combined imperialist assault on Syria could end up having unforeseen consequences is anathema to Greaves, because his Weltanschauung isn’t Marxism, but conspiracy theory.

When I talk about the conspiracist mindset, I don’t mean to deny that there are, occasionally, conspiracies. The secret US bombing of Cambodia, the covert Sri Lankan support for the LTTE, the current imperial collusion against Syria. The conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, take everything that happens to be the result of a secret, hidden, singular conspiracy. This conspiracy controls events, up to the tiniest detail; such occurrences are only the phenomenal manifestations of a metaphysical order. If Iraq is being plunged into disorder, even though it appears to damage US interests, it must be part of the secret Plan. I’ve personally come under attack for daring to doubt a similar exercise in bullshit: the argument that Boko Haram in Nigeria are similarly and against all reason a CIA covert operation. In pseudo-Marxist conspiracy the existence of this Plan is never directly posited, but it remains as a cluster of behaviours and analytical tics; its chimerical workings are buried everywhere below the surface of Greaves’ essay. These ideas are comforting, in the same way that it was comforting for me to believe that my childhood enemies were part of an organised conspiracy dedicated to my unhappiness. But they’re not true.

They’re also not Marxist. Marxism is not a form of paranoid foreign policy analysis, and presenting such nonsense as Marxism does the movement a disservice. Marxism means asking why the forms we see existing in society appear the way they do, and searching for the contradictions buried behind what what presents itself as a unity. Greaves uses the word ‘contradiction’ a lot — he writes with a lot of Marx’s terminology, if none of his wit — but his approach is concerned only with seeing real contradictions and resolving them into false unities. Jao Ching-huang observed: At present a polemic about ‘one divides into two’ and ‘two combine into one’ is going on in our philosophical front. This is a struggle [respectively] between those who support the material dialectic and those who oppose it. For all the invocations of dialectical principles, there’s no sign whatsoever that they’re actually being applied.

Most of all, Marxism means identifying the class oppressors and the means by which they carry out their oppression, and opposing it. Opposing very real class oppressors in actions they are not taking because of some latent fantasy of a transcendent Plan is worse than useless. It’s damaging to the movement, and chasing after fictitious imperialist plots limits our capacity to oppose those evils that actually exist.

UPDATE: Phil Greaves has responded to this post on his blog, in a piece called Philosophical Idealists as Comrades-In-Arms: A Reply to Sam Kriss. For those unwilling to read through several thousand words of bloviating incoherence, it’s probably enough to know that he appears to be genuinely under the impression that I’m a tech blogger and lifestyle guru based on this tweet.