Guy Rundle, the ‘anti-imperialist Left’ and the calls for a no-fly zone in Libya

by · March 17, 2011


Friends no longer
It’s important to give Guy Rundle credit for being one of the few mainstream commentators who still has interesting things to say from a genuinely Left perspective. But his intervention in the debate over whether the Australian Left should back calls for a Western-run no-fly zone in Libya — to save the revolution from a bloody defeat at the hands of military forces loyal to Gaddafi — has provoked a hostile debate between supporters and opponents of intervention.

Rundle’s original Crikey article is here (unfortunately paywalled). It was given a sympathetic treatment by Kim of Larvatus Prodeo, with a prolonged debate to be found in the comments beneath. Rundle then continued his argument, emphasising what he saw as more general failure of the radical Left here (again, paywalled). As if to make clear how much was to be said about the failures of the Left, he continued his argument at the Crikey blogs section on the same day (with my reply underneath).
The argument has spilled over into the Overland Journal Blog, with Jacinda Woodhead’s riposte quite reasonably pointing out that it is mistaken to expect Western powers to suddenly act in defence of the Libyan revolution when their record generally runs in the opposite direction (and indeed they seem to be supportive of the Saudi invasion of Bahrain to help repress the uprising there—a silence that former UK diplomat Craig Murray believes may be in exchange for Arab League support for a no-fly zone).
States and the international state system: whose states and whose system?
It’s good that Rundle has spelled out more of his position in his latest piece at Crikey*, because he gets closer  to the heart of the difference — which is not directly about the Libyan situation at all, but about understandings of imperialism and the state. Guy says he rejects “archaic” definitions of imperialism and talks of “how you should relate to your own state (and its military)”. This allows him to tie his quite understandable support for the Libyan revolutionaries to pro-Western intervention arguments.
But it is not clear what he wants to put in the place of (say) a Marxist theorisation of the state and imperialism — something that authors with views as diverse as Toni Negri, David Harvey and Alex Callinicos have tried to do in bringing a Marxist framework up to date with the massive changes in global geopolitics that have occurred since Lenin wrote on these questions. As Richard Seymour has noted, Guy’s deployment of terms like “colonial” to describe left-wing refusal to back intervention itself relates to quite outdated notions of how power-relations in the international state system work.
This leads him to essentially posit the actions of states, large and small, very much in terms of their disconnection from processes of capital accumulation:
But as the decades waxed and waned, power relations, the economy, identity, nature of class have changed substantially (at least on surface, even if one believes that the base is still chugging away beneath).
It simply will not do to say that things have changed but instead we need to have some idea of how they’ve changed that justify’s Guy’s approach. In effect he is arguing that when a subaltern grouping challenges the state they are arrayed against (in Libya, or Egypt, or wherever) then “we” (the Left) can help them by getting “our” state to give them a hand. Or, more correctly, demand that larger, much more powerful states get involved. It is these questions of the state and state system that Left Flank has foregrounded over the last nine months we’ve been writing.
In Guy’s position, by contrast, there is little sense of what interests drive the actions of “our” state, or — more importantly — those of NATO states. Why is it that these states so consistently support dictatorships over democracy, and stability over freedom? And why would we think that they would choose to intervene now for any other reason than a continuation of the service of those interests?
We end up with a world where bad states (e.g. Gaddafi’s) are ok to be overthrown, and in fact if the people of Libya aren’t up to it (and maybe they’re not, as Guy seems so certain) then better to get some other state to do it for them. The proposed agent states here are the very ones who have consistently been the enemies of freedom and revolution. How Guy presumes that “we” can really make sure that “our” states do the right thing I’m not sure.
Intervention and the Arab revolutions
What benefit Guy sees in the legitimation of direct US intervention in an Arab country would have for the general tide of popular uprisings (against local states and imperial control) is even murkier… unless he thinks that an NFZ will force the US state to act directly against the interests it normally serves so assiduously, even if at times only semi-competently.
Perhaps that is where Guy is at, with his discussion of seizing the moment. The problem here is that for the Left this is much more a case of “where fools rush in”, because the complexity of situation and the consideration of real power relations require more thinking through than Guy’s dismissal of “archaic” theories credits.
To repeat what I have said before, Guy’s talk of “solidarity” versus “passivity” has a decidedly hollow ring, too. Because the request is not for solidarity from us, but from our ruling classes and their military machines. We of the Australian Left will remain passive, except insofar as we cheerlead and construct justifications for our rulers’ self-interested efforts.
Of course that does leave the question of the Libyan leadership to discuss. I think Guy has misunderstood Richard Seymour’s point — which is not that the rebels are led by a uniformly crap bunch of people but that varied political positions emerge in revolutionary uprisings. The Bolsheviks, after all, had much less influence in February 1917 and so the war that the revolution was supposed to bring to a halt continued. Should the Western Left have simply offered solidarity to the Russian people by cheering that decision by the newly installed revolutionary leadership?
The point is that we have a responsibility to judge these things for ourselves — what real effect we think such actions will have. That actually means taking sides in the argument within the Libyan revolution about what we think is the best way forward. Guy has taken a different side to the one I have, but he should call it as such rather than elide those differences by deferring to the Libyan revolution’s currently leading elements.
It is important in that regard that if Gaddafi tries to take the key urban strongholds of the rebellion, he will have much more trouble — unless he wants to risk actually genocidal activity (i.e. killing millions). That kind of brutality risks a greater explosion of Arab militancy in the region, now also directed across borders at him. It is simply not realistic to conclude that it’s intervention or bust for the rebels.
An urban resistance movement in Benghazi would gain little from a no-fly zone and depend much more on the kind of grassroots organising that has been the Libyan revolution’s strength. Whether the political forces within the revolution align with that kind of resistance, one that can potentially link up with working class opposition to Gaddafi in Tripoli itself, or see the revolt in purely military terms will affect the nature of the resistance itself.
If Guy could refrain from his grand denunciations of the Marxist Left (all too much in evidence from some in the Larvatus Prodeo discussion as well) and stick to that argument, in its fullest sense, then we may get further. I fear that Guy’s tone of urgency has caused the moral imperative to help an inspiring revolutionary movement override sober analysis of the consequences of the action he supports. It has made him sound more like Christopher Hitchens than I think he would be comfortable with, which, as I have said elsewhere, has been a surprise and disappointment to me.
The Greens and humanitarian intervention
Finally, having been a Greens member from 2002-10 and actively involved at all levels of the party (in NSW and nationally) I can inform Guy that while there are many left-wing people inside the party, they mostly have a confused and contradictory attitude towards the state and imperialism. It is this that leads them to accept the idea that real social change must come through existing power structures, even though many have a genuine and deep commitment to mass struggle running alongside these beliefs. It has also led to an erosion of interest in building mass movements the more successful the party has become in electoral terms, because the reflex assumption is that real power lies in Canberra.
This has a direct ideological consequence (even if, as Gramsci would say, the change in thinking occurs “molecularly”): State policies come to be seen as “bad policies” (which they are) but the state itself comes to be seen as potentially “good” and to be defended against alternatives. Hence the initial Greens response to the Egyptian revolution was to call for process solutions — free and fair elections — rather than Mubarak’s ouster; at the time a position barely different to Hillary Clinton’s. Clinton also favours the NFZ, so perhaps this is the level of “radicalism” the Greens MPs are articulating.
It has been most dismaying to see Adam Bandt, whose victory in the seat of Melbourne last year has been an inspiration for so many on the Left, take such a strong pro-intervention position. Adam had told us that his PhD thesis (reportedly brilliant, but apparently still embargoed from public view) related directly to questions of international law and was in part a response to China Mieville’s Marxist critique of international law, Between Equal Rights. Mieville had been motivated to write his thesis to challenge the framework of the legal debates around the notion of “humanitarian intervention” in the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. We had presumed that Adam had pursued a line that while critical of Mieville, would have started with distrust for the notion of imperial intervention bringing positive results for oppressed peoples. Maybe we were wrong.
This debate has exposed a recurring lacuna in Left thinking on issues of the state, militarism and geopolitics — that of the interests that lie behind these phenomena. It is doubly striking because, as Guy has correctly grasped, the Arab revolutions have cracked open the edifice of power relations embodied in the aforementioned. Better to urgently talk through those issues than to run half-cocked into backing the very forces that have consistently proven themselves the enemies of the Left, progress and freedom.
*Although it is irritating that he can’t spell my surname.