Civilising the Barbarians by Barbarising the Civilians

If someone says the words ‘Iraq’ and ‘war’ to you what image immediately springs to mind – this one? This one? Maybe, this one? It’s not so surprising that these images caused such shock and outrage – they cut right to the heart of the ideology of US interventionism.

Some have called US interventionism imperial. I don’t think this is the right word. The imperialism of yore had very specific goals – to exploit a population considered a lesser species. This is how the French and the British used to justify their empires. They argued that their imperial subjects were savages and that they had to be civilised by the British or the French. In practice, of course, British and French ‘civilising’ really meant bondage.

This idea of ‘civilising’ the populations of the Empire was ideological in the strongest and most cynical interpretation of that word. The British and the French barely believed that their mission was to ‘civilise’ these populations – they were really just interested in exploiting them. This cynicism is what led Karl Marx to reevaluate the term ‘imperialism’ in his magnum opus ‘Das Kapital’. He argued that the whole imperial phenomenon was just an ideological justification sitting atop a wholly economic rationale. This is the source implicitly drawn upon today when people refer to ‘US imperialism’ – yet, these people are speaking about an entirely different phenomenon than that considered by Marx.

The Americans for all their faults, don’t seem to reason in the same manner. The Americans seem to believe what they say. In classic Wilsonian fashion, Americans loath imperialism. Like Marx, they saw through the tissue of lies and webs of justifications put forward by the old imperial powers – and they were among the first to unmask it for what it was. Even though this country had internal problems of its own – from segregation to a rather questionable past when it came to the Native Americans – there was always a spirit of radical egalitarianism in Washington.

What the Americans engage in today is not imperialism; just as what the ex-Soviet Union engaged in was not imperialism. Recall the old Cold War discourse: the US would accuse the USSR of trying to destroy the freedoms of poor populations under the totalitarian yoke; while the USSR would accuse the US of capitalist imperialism. There were grains of truth to be found in both these accusations, but, ultimately, they both missed the mark. Both the US and the USSR genuinely wanted to deliver these countries from serfdom – they both believed that increased freedom and civilisation came with increased economic and industrial progress. Essentially, both these superpowers – both born from the revolutionary tradition – took the ideological masks that they had torn from the old imperial powers and began to take these completely seriously.

Today, the US – and now Britain too – still holds these conceptions. This is not surprising, as so does just about everyone. From the left to the right, almost everyone today equates social and cultural progress with economic progress – and they implicitly associate economic progress with democratic progress; whether this be America’s pet democracies, or the left’s pet democracies in South America.

This is why those torture pictures had such an impact. There, in full color, was evidence that the US had moved away from the ideals of democracy and had embraced the old imperial attitudes of subjection. We should be careful to note, however, that should America’s wars be thought of as imperialism proper, the shock values of these photos would have, perhaps, been null.

Naturally, the photos fed into a debate over what was torture and what was not. The Bush administration tried desperately to either justify their practices or to justify instances in which torture would be acceptable. Once again, this debate would have been meaningless in the frame of classic imperialism – where those subjected are less-than-human and thus aren’t even discussed in terms of human or civil rights.

This weekend the Guardian released a story indicating that the US were deeply involved with seasoned torturers and other barbarians that, in all likelihood, were still hanging around after the overthrow of Saddam. This will undoubtedly be another nail in the coffin of US interventionism. You see, it doesn’t fit with the narrative. The narrative insists that the Americans are liberating these people from tyrannous leaders (leaders which the US often had a hand in installing) – and when the Americans are seen to be partially reconstructing Saddam’s blood-soaked state apparatus, the whole project becomes bunk.

The wars undertaken by the US in this decade were not imperial wars – any more than Vietnam or Korea were imperial wars; any more than US intervention in Latin America was (is?) imperial. This is an altogether more confused form of violence – a violence pegged to the loftiest ideals that makes use of the basest methods. It is these features that the US shares with the Soviet regimes – this idealism that permeates both of them completely. It is an almost purified idealism, one that wants to know no limits or impediments. Modernisation – in short – fired straight from the barrel of a gun.


UPDATE: The UN are now calling for investigations into the most recent torture scandals.

About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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3 Responses to Civilising the Barbarians by Barbarising the Civilians

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