Before I begin, I suppose I should mention that I am an American. I will be, for the most part, addressing issues within the American left. Within that perspective is a recognition of my home country’s disastrous role in interventions across the world, and the large footprint that American military activity has left on other countries. None of this is meant to excuse or justify the crimes of the American state, or other imperial and/or colonial powers, or invalidate wanting to oppose them. I think that seeing the American state as the biggest, most dangerous monster around is valid. This essay isn’t an attempt at criticizing the desire to slay the monster — it’s about our inability to do so, and about where well-intentioned attempts on it often lead.
All of that said, I do not stan dictators. I don’t care whether or not that they are pro- or anti-American. It makes no difference. This might not seem like a particularly notable statement to make. In a better world, it would hardly seem worth putting into words. Still, this is what we have come to.
Whenever I see the words “anti-imperialism”, I find myself cringing inwardly. After all, it usually means the person or group using the phrase is going to start stanning foreign dictators. I do not stan dictators, no matter where they are.
If “anti-imperialism” really did just confine itself to opposing military interventions by states against other states, then it would be very hard for me to argue against it. Every time a state goes to war against another state, civilians die. Sometimes, conscripts die — and, while I can hardly term killing conscripts to be a war crime in the same sense that killing unarmed civilians is, it also strikes me as tragic: they are slaves of the state too. Never has a state ever gone to war for selfless reasons, even though they often claim to do so. America did not bring freedom to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, or anywhere else. It brought massive amounts of death and buoyed domestic business interests.
Perhaps there are some reasons to shrug at even this sort of steelmanned anti-imperialism. After all, who is there to root for when two states fight? And, if one state does conquer another, perhaps this also opens up possibilities. Larger states can sometimes be less efficient at quashing dissent due to their very largeness. As the Chinese saying goes “the mountains are high, and the empire is far away.” Perhaps not, though — it would be awfully easy for me, in the relative safety and comfort of America, to root for anarchist possibilities in post-war societies and ignore the civilian death toll that precedes them.
Still, opposing those horrors isn’t what “anti-imperialists” are really about. If it was, they’d just stick to talking about that. Instead, they do a certain strange song and dance; they publicly support foreign dictators. Maduro, Khameni, Assad. You know who I mean. Sometimes, even Putin, the Kims, and/or Jinping. Any state, really — as long as it isn’t America, or American-backed.
To be clear, I am not just talking about tankies. Plenty of anarchists do this. You can find plenty of examples of this on twitter and reddit.
It is always in the name of “anti-imperialism” that certain leftists call for the Kurds to give up their struggle against genocide, and demand that they give the “Syrians” back “their” land. It is always in the name of “anti-imperialism” that these leftists say that anything bad said about North Korea is really secret capitalist propaganda.
Actually-existing anti-imperialism really has very little to do with being against statist slaughter of innocents — or, at least, not within borders. After all, “anti-imperialists” never much seem to mind when geopolitical rivals of the US brutalize and slaughter “their own” civilians by the thousands or millions. When they deign to “allow” (not that they could stop anything!) any resistance to these foreign monsters, it is only from other leftists within said monsters’ claimed borders.
It’s this focus on borders that gives the whole game away: this is just nation-statism, wearing a leftist mask and expressed in an unusually even-handed way. Treating states as legitimate as long as they operate within their own borders, but rejecting the same violence under “anti-imperialism” when states attempt to wield it outside “their” borders, is to treat the legal construct of the border as legitimate. Treating leftist rebels as legitimate as long as they operate solely within the borders of the state they find themselves in, but illegitimate traitorous imperialist capitalists as soon as they have foreign volunteers among them or accept (unreliable) help from foreign states, is based in the same acceptance of borders themselves.
A lot of leftists, even a lot of anarchists, are crypto-nationalists in this vein. It leaks into domestic radical spaces as well. Too many are still quite infected with the ideology of nationalism, albeit a convoluted one that can seem radical on the surface. This is understandable, of course, but not excusable.
This goes even further. There are many leftists who have accused me of being a colonizer for considering moving beyond the borders of the American state, to majority non-white countries. Or, even, for considering moving to Detroit. This issue, and the others associated with this worldview, would take essays of their own to tease out. My point isn’t to directly address them — it is to show how actually existing anti-imperialist rhetoric feeds into nationalisms that can hardly be called anarchist.
When someone calls themselves an “anti-imperialist”, you should question what that really means.
There is, however, another side to this. “Anti-imperialism”, even in its most steelmanned form is completely and totally impotent. Anti-war protests don’t work, and the idea that they have any effect is statist propaganda designed to lure liberals into pacifism. Posting anti-war memes does nothing to stop war. Just look at the millions who protested the Iraq war, and all of the lives that that didn’t save.
Unless you are going to assassinate elected officials, or actually sabotage the operations of your local military base, you are not going to have any real life-saving effect. If you do these things, I will sing your praises. You will be a hero, on par with Leon Czolgosz. But, I don’t think that anyone reading my essay has the level of commitment necessary to get themselves killed and/or imprisoned for something like this. Most people don’t.
This is okay. I can barely effect things happening in my hometown. I certainly can’t efficiently effect things happening halfway across the world. So, if you call yourself an “anti-imperialist” and center your activism around that… don’t. You’re wasting a lot of effort. Find some local, small-scale cause to pursue. You’ll do everyone more good.