Wayne Hall looks at Perry Anderson’s “Force and Consent” (New Left Review 17, Second Series)
Perry Anderson is the editor of the New Left Review , probably the most prestigious Marxist English-language theoretical journal in the world. He and his journal count for something in shaping opinion in academia and beyond, not only in Europe and the U.S. but everywhere. That is why I am writing this activist article to single him out for attention. We should be subjecting Perry Anderson to the same kind of co-ordinated treatment that neo-conservative activists give any prominent person who gets out of line by their criteria. I don’t advocate terrorising and blackmailing Anderson the way the Right do to people. But we can try to shame him. And it would be good to start trying to do it now, in this period of waiting for the attack on Iraq that the U.S. government has announced it intends to carry out and which Perry Anderson believes it is going to.
Perry Anderson has pre-emptively surrendered in the face of that threatened pre-emptive war. He does not ostentatiously support the attack as open champions of the war like Christopher Hitchens do. But in his own lofty way, distastefully, he gives it the nod. His stance is more sophisticated, more insidious and so less noticed. He is not out to attract attention to himself beyond his intellectual peer group. With that audience his priorities are on saving face: adopting a position that will enable him to carry on his orderly life as before even in the kind of America (and world) that is taking shape now and will be worse after an attack on Iraq.
Anderson has to be reminded there is another audience monitoring him beyond those with whom he habitually associates and with whom he is personally familiar. There are others reading what he writes, and for them (for us) what he writes is simply not good enough. In fact it is lamentable. His pessimistic reading of the present international situation might be forgivable if it was not based on ignoring facts, but it is based on ignoring facts. His position on 9/11 is the familiar one that the attacks were unexpected. To be precise, he says they represented “an unexpected chance to recast the terms of American global strategy more decisively than would otherwise have been possible.” “The attentats of September 11 gave a Presidency that was anyway seeking to change the modus operandi of America abroad the opportunity for a much swifter and more ambitious turn that it could easily have executed otherwise. The circle around Bush realised this immediately.”
Anderson should be aggressively held to account for this central error in his reading, which is either accidental, in which case he is an incompetent political analyst, or deliberate, in which case he should be asked to explain why he is a conscious participant in this collective cover-up that emasculates not only the national campaign to hold Bush and his circle accountable for their crimes against American citizens but also the international anti-war movement.
Though Anderson now lives mainly in the United States, and has modified his life orientation to reflect this (once a leading theorist of “Western [i.e. Western European] Marxism, he is now in effect a critical supporter of the U.S. Democratic Party), he is as blind to the emergence and the potential of the new post-9/11 American opposition as any rank-and-file European Leftist ignorant of America. Again one asks: is this because he does not know or because he does not want to know?
I suspect that when confronted with the real facts of 9/11, Anderson’s stance would be that they are irrelevant, because only a marginal minority is going to get up in arms about such facts anyway. What is more important is the long-term historical perspective: “The arrogance of the ‘international community’ and its rights of intervention across the globe are not a series of arbitrary events or disconnected episodes. They compose a system, which needs to be fought with a coherence not less than its own.” Fighting the system with a coherence not less than its own for Anderson means not wasting time and effort on phenomena like 9/11, which was “In no sense a serious threat to American power: the targets were “symbolic” and the victims, though admittedly innocent and killed in one day, were “no more than the number of Americans who kill each other in a season.” Anderson (like his lieutenant Tariq Ali but unlike the Blairite mainstream of the British Labour Party) does not believe that 9/11 changed the world, nor that its effects are going to be permanent. “The current shift of emphasis,” he says, “from what is ‘co-operatively allied’ to what is ‘distinctively American’ within the imperial ideology is, of its nature, likely to be short-lived. The war on terrorism is a temporary by-pass on the royal road leading to ‘human rights and liberty’ around the world”. (So GET OVER IT!) Being “product of an emergency” (because it was not deliberately engineered, W.H.) it has introduced a style of government “far more strident than the cloying pieties [concerning human rights] of the Clinton-Albright years” but also “more brittle”: “The new and sharper line from Washington has gone down badly in Europe, where human rights discourse was and is especially prized.” But “its negative goals are no substitute for the permanent positive ideals that a hegemony requires.” And because the objective of defeating and occupying Iraq is within American capacities (“its immediate costs do not at this stage look prohibitive”), and because “Washington can hope for a Nicaraguan effect after a decade of mortality and despair under UN siege” it is likely that the war against Iraq is going to be successful.
“Reporters from the New Yorker and Le Monde, Vanity Fair and the New York Review of Books, the Guardian and La Repubblica,” says Anderson, “will descend on a liberated Baghdad and – naturally with a level-headed realism, and all necessary qualifications – greet the timid dawn of Arab democracy, as earlier Balkan and Afghan. With the rediscovery that, after all, the only true revolution is American, power and literature can fall into each other’s arms again. The storm in the Atlantic tea-cup will not last very long.”
His prediction is that America’s economic problems are soon going to necessitate a change of regime in Washington. There will be a peaceful return to office of the Democrats. “In the not too distant future, the widows of Clinton will find consolation.” (sic) Dubya will presumably retire to his ranch. Unanswered questions will remain unanswered, and 9/11 will sink ineluctably into the past, for Americans and non-Americans alike.
Anyone who has followed the course of New Left Review over th e years will be aware of a drift in the magazine’s political orientations that do not go well with pretensions to be “fighting the system with a coherence not less than its own.” Admittedly Anderson has not always been the editor. He was replaced in 1983, at the height of the anti-nuclear-weapons mobilisations in Europe, by Robin Blackburn, and did not make a real comeback until seventeen years later. He kept a low profile in the magazine throughout the last phase of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the succeeding period of wars in former Yugoslavia. But he has always been one of the handful of people at the heart of the magazine and has probably been more influential than any other one person in establishing its intellectual style.
There are three points of discontinuity in the NLR’s politics that are worth examining to refute Anderson’s implied claim that by ignoring the realities of 9/11 he assists in forging a superior long-term perspective of anti-capitalist critique. They are a) nuclear weapons, b) the Soviet Union, and c) “human rights” and their alleged priority over considerations of national sovereignty.
With the renewed topicality of nuclear weapons in the light of America’s determination that Iraq is not to be allowed to possess any, one might expect to find in Anderson’s writings today some sign of having been influenced by the great nuclear weapons debates that graced the pages of his magazine in the eighties. But there is none. Utterly forgotten are the truths we learned then about how nuclear weapons for all but the strongest nuclear power merely serve to undermine national security, turning a country into an object for “first strike” counter-force scenarios and so into a more immediate nuclear target than it would otherwise be. Utterly ignored is the role that nuclear weapons possession played in the downfall of the Soviet Union (which has been survived for more than a decade now by much smaller, weaker, non-nuclear-weapons-possessing Communist states such as Cuba).
Anderson endorses the idea that Iraq’s supposed continuing desire to possess nuclear weapons is a plausible ground for Washington’s current preparations to invade it. He takes it as axiomatic that the “traditional nuclear oligopoly” [not a word about Gorbachev’s and then Yeltsin’s years of effort to find feasible ways of escaping from that oligopoly] is bound to be more and more challenged “as the technology for making atomic weapons becomes cheaper and simpler”. Why does he assume that other states are likely to be led by deluded clowns in thrall to the myths of Hollywood and the mass media? Why does he assume that other states want to follow the Soviet road to perdition by acquiring nuclear weapons?
“The club”, he says, “has already been defied by India and Pakistan ”. In what way do India’s and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons signify defiance? Why does Anderson not mention Benazir Bhutto’s desperate attempts to get rid of her country’s nuclear weapons? Why does he not show some awareness of how these attempts were thwarted by India’s intransigence aided and abetted by the international anti-nuclear movement’s idiotic promotion of India’s nuclear anti-Americanism. Why does he write as if he never read the articles published by New Left Review in the eighties analysing the interactions in anti-nuclear-weapons politics between citizens’ movements and governments. Why does he write as if he doesn’t know that only AMERICAN citizens, and not a nuclear-armed Indian government, can make the American government abide by the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and at the time of writing, some are even attempting to do so: weapons inspection teams of United States citizens are demanding “immediate, unimpeded unconditional, and unrestricted access to any and all, including underground, areas, facilities, buildings, equipment, records, and means of transport,” at Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons Lab.” They are maintaining the struggle that Anderson has given up.
Even simply in terms of internal coherence, what Anderson says about nuclear weapons does not make sense. On the one hand he says that Iraq’s not actually possessing nuclear weapons “would make an attack on it all the more effective as a lesson deterring others from any bid to acquire them. ” On the other, as indicated, he says that, more and more states are now going to be wanting nuclear weapons in order to protect themselves from a fate similar to Iraq’s. Does he in fact know what he believes about all this, let alone what is true? Is he consciously spreading disinformation and confusion on a subject that the New Left Review was much more honest and informative about twenty years ago than today. If so, why?
The mechanism at work in Anderson’s writing is exactly the same as with his concealment of the realities of 9/11: a manufactured threat: a threat which has been brought into existence through years of persevering diplomatic and political work on the part of the United States, is taken at face value. Anderson pretends that the dominant tendency in the United States power elite does not want other states to have nuclear weapons. And he pretends that they do not wish to encourage foreign terrorist acts against American citizens. The record shows precisely the opposite to be true in both cases.
What, after all, are the criteria for who is to have nuclear weapons? When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus were allowed, indeed encouraged, to become non-nuclear weapons states, but Yeltsin’s attempts to get Russia as close as possible to the same non-nuclear status were sabotaged. South Africa was allowed unilaterally to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, but Britain and France, which in 1991 could have done a trilateral denuclearising deal on Brazilian-Argentinian lines with Russia, their only conceivable nuclear antagonist, did not try to. Pierre Joxe, the Socialist who as French Defence Minister was present at negotiations in Moscow on the future of Soviet and “Western” nuclear weapons in 1991, sent a smoke signal to the anti-nuclear movements at that time when he said that “France will not be the first to put on the brakes if there is a large world-wide movement for nuclear disarmament”. There was no response to it. Having myself at that point personally contacted Robin Blackburn (among others) and begged for action, I know that New Left Review bears some of the responsibility for that failure.
And what is the reality now? During a visit to China last year President Bush tried to encourage the Chinese to increase the size of their arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States, so as to provide added justifications for United States development of its anti-missile shield. That is the point we have reached.
The Soviet Union
During the eighties the New Left Review’s stance on the Soviet Union was that it was one side of a bipolar system weighing down on the lives of both Western and Eastern Europeans. There was a tendency, headed by Fred Halliday, which spoke of the indispensable economic and above all military assistance provided by the Soviets to independence struggles in “The Third World”. But the main focus was always on aiding the emancipation of civil society in Eastern Europe, from the time of the Prague Spring of 1968 on through the subsequent struggles of Solidarnosc in Poland and into the period of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost.
What is clearest in retrospect is the close correspondence between the magazine’s political positions and the objectives of German foreign policy as articulated in the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and his Social Democratic and Green successors. The New Left Review in the eighties was an element of the cultural milieu supporting that Ostpolitik. It therefore welcomed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and subsequent unification of Germany as a triumph for European “civil society” against the bloc system of the “two superpowers.” There was no hint in the New Left Review of the early nineties of Anderson’s current view that the collapse of the Eastern bloc “marked complete US victory in the Cold War.” 1989 was seen as a victory for “Europe” and 1991 as a victory for “democracy”.
The formula to which Anderson now adheres is that throughout the Cold War the Soviet Union acted as a countervailing force impeding absolute United States hegemony and so affording a measure of protection to weaker states. In line with this one-eyed interpretation of Cold War victory purely and simply as victory for the United States, Anderson gives a seriously distorted reading of key political events in the nineties. He presents the expansion of NATO “up to the traditional borders of Russia” as an American initiative, whereas in fact political opinion in the United States until around 1995 was seriously divided over the wisdom of proceeding with such an expansion. (There was no corresponding division in “respectable” political opinion in Germany). He says that Washington “took charge of liquidating the Yugoslav estate”, whereas in fact the first shots against Yugoslavia were fired by the Germans when they pressured the rest of Europe into backing their recognition of Croatian independence. In general Anderson pays no attention at all to how in the dismantling of Yugoslavia the Germans were getting the Americans to follow their agenda, not vice versa. Nor is he interested in the historical background to German and Austrian grudges against the Serbs, either from the time of the First World War or from that of the Second, when Belgrade threw back in Hitler’s face a political deal far more favourable to itself than it could have expected to get at that time, and far more favourable than anything it is getting today.
Anderson pays tribute to the Nazi theoretician Carl Schmitt, whom he names as one of two serious geopolitical thinkers of twentieth century Europe – he deplores that there are no such European thinkers today and that “all serious geopolitical writing is done in the United States” – but he never descends from the plane of high theory to draw the obvious political point from such tributes. Rather than acknowledge that one has been a willing accomplice in belated Hitlerian politics in the Balkans, one says that it was not the Germans but the Americans that were behind it.
This impacts on the third area where Anderson implicitly tries to dissociate himself from positions he previously supported. The globalist rhetoric of human rights, (targeting in particular the evil of nationalism) which in the nineties replaced the slogans of European civil society’s struggle for liberation from the two superpowers, is now viewed rather distastefully by Anderson. It was the rhetoric that functioned as apologetics for NATO’s “humanitarian bombing” of the Balkans. Fixing his sights on present-day opponents of an invasion of Iraq who supported Western military action in Bosnia, Kossovo and Afghanistan, he informs them that “it is no better to support [aggressive warfare] in the name of human rights than it is to support it in the name of nuclear non-proliferation”. “What is sauce for the Balkan goose is sauce for the Mesopotamian gander. The remonstrants who pretend otherwise deserve less respect than those they implore not to act on their common presumptions.” In other words people like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who supported Western military action in both Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, are no better than supporters of Bush and Cheney who want to invade Iraq. In fact they are worse. They deserve less respect.
“The principle is exactly the same.” says Anderson. “The right – indeed the duty – of civilized states to stamp out the worst forms of barbarism, within whatever national boundaries they occur, to make the world a safer and more peaceful place…The logic is unanswerable.” At this point there is nothing to distinguish Anderson from Hitchens, only style. The conclusions that Hitchens reaches with relish Anderson reaches with weary regret. But they are the same conclusions.
Really Anderson’s disdain for the “human rights” activists brings him to politics worse (i.e. closer to Bush) than Hitchens: “There is no cause to regret,” he says, “that the Bush administration has scotched the wretched charade of the International Criminal court, or swept aside the withered fig leaves of the Kyoto tribunal.” Hitchens would not agree here. He wants that International Criminal Court, and Kyoto too, I imagine.
So what if it is a charade? The International Criminal Court, like the United Nations War Crimes Court for Former Yugoslavia on which it is modelled, is a charade that is being played out for a purpose. Wasn’t Milosevic chosen as a scapegoat precisely because of his suitability for luring the “unilateralist” Americans into setting a trap for themselves? Isn’t this War Crimes Court for Yugoslavia supposed to be setting precedents that will enable Christopher Hitchens to put Henry Kissinger in the dock, and then perhaps some more recent American war criminals, such as President Bush? Didn’t Under Secretary of State John Bolton publicly express anxiety on that score today? (Friday November 15th). Couldn’t the Court even now earn international plaudits for itself by acquitting Milosevic and then in reincarnated form be used to put on trial some real baddies, like Ariel Sharon? These are objectives that are still taken seriously by British Labour Party think tanks. Why does Perry Anderson start disowning them precisely now that they are beginning to look marginally less crazy?
It would be so good for Anderson to be given the chance to extricate himself from the knots he has tied himself into. He is a professor at the UCLA. Let us tell him that he must abandon his assertion that the 9/11 attacks were “unexpected” and face the evidence that they were not. That will be a start.
You can read Perry Anderson’s article at http://newleftreview.org/II/17/perry-anderson-force-and-consent