Syria seen from the Viewpoint of imperial purity: the crushing narcissism of empire

Bomber Harris Superstar, anti-deutsch
Bomber Harris Superstar, anti-deutsch

Cautiously Pessimistic responds to Patrick Higgins' The Enemy at Home: U.S. Imperialism in Syria published in Viewpoint Magazine.

Submitted by Mike Harman on February 20, 2018

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

“most leftist[s] know almost nothing about Syria, and the little they know is either deeply flawed or absolutely false… their anti imperialism discourse moved from the field of analysis and politics to the realm of identity: concepts were transformed to symbols, a specific linguistic expressions that tell who you are, not what you are doing and how to offer a better understanding of the world. So when you talk about struggle against imperialism, this in no way means that you are really doing anything that will annoy imperialism.” – Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Viewpoint Magazine is a publication with a very curious editorial policy. At times, it’s put out some really useful, insightful analysis, particularly where it comes to the intersection of class and what is sometimes described as identity politics, and engaging with some of the best thinkers to emerge from the broad Marxist tradition, from Pannekoek to Federici; and at other times, it’s published some barely readable crap, especially distinguished by a strange reverence for the “New Communist Movement” sects that emerged out of the defeat and fragmentation of the student and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

Among the really good things that Viewpoint’s published is a piece by Asad Haider from about a year ago, with the deliberately provocative title “White Purity”, looking at how forms of liberal white anti-racist politics that focus on white privilege and white guilt can have the counter-productive effect of making everything all about white people. One of the things that’s interesting about White Purity is that it provides some conceptual tools that can help articulate precisely why some of the more recent stuff that Viewpoint’s published is so awful.

I haven’t had time to read much of their new collection on imperialism, because it’s really long and none of us have as much free time as we’d like, but from what I have had the chance to read so far, it contains at least one really glaringly bad article, dealing with the subject of Syria. The author, Patrick Higgins, is guided by an ideology that would usually be described as “anti-imperialism” or simply “anti-Americanism”, but which, following Haider, we can refer to as “imperial purity” or “American purity”. What does imperial purity involve?

Here are some quotations from Haider’s piece which, with some minor editing, can provide a good sketch of imperial/American purity:

Among other things, [empire] is a kind of solipsism. From right to left, [Americans] consistently and successfully reroute every political discussion to their identity…

These debates, flaring up constantly since [at least WWI], provide [Americans] with a perfect opportunity to make the world revolve around them…

And so it turns back around, back to [Americans] and their fantasies. We have tried, for some time, to ignore this and continue to discuss the substantive issues. But [Americans] make our lives even more difficult when they claim to speak in our name. I can only conclude that the strange phenomenon called [empire] produces a very deep and tenacious psychopathology, and that it is time for us to attack it openly…

Indeed, to the consternation of good [Americans], not every [person from a colonized country] is on board with [imperial] purity. Many are, to be sure, because the secret reality which [imperial] purity hopes to obscure is that [people from colonized countries] are just as capable of a diversity of opinions and perspectives as [Americans] are. For [imperial] purity to succeed, [people from colonized countries] have to be romanticized as noble victims. When they fail to fit into this category, [imperial] purity seems to lack a proper foundation…

The Weather Underground used the language of “privilege” to reject the white working class as a force for revolutionary change, instead associating political struggle with vanguard groups like themselves, who attacked their own privilege by adopting a revolutionary lifestyle. What this amounted to was the self-flagellation (with explosives) of white radicals, who substituted themselves for the masses and narcissistically centered attention on themselves instead of the black and Third World movements they claimed to be supporting – reducing those movements to a romantic fantasy of violent insurrection…

White liberals are suggesting that a new wave of “pro-white” socialists have arisen to defend the “white working class.” This is nonsense. [International] revolutionaries throughout [global] history have argued that the project of emancipation requires overcoming the divisive logic of [nationalism].”

Now, to examine Higgins’ article for examples of what this imperial purity looks like in practice:

Early on, Higgins includes Syria as part of a list of “targets of U.S. imperialism” and “sites of large-scale U.S. military violence”, consisting of Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. This feels a bit like comparing apples, oranges and watermelons: Iraq, certainly, is a place where the US started a war by invading, and it’s unarguable that, if the US hadn’t invaded in 2003, Iraq would not have been at war then. Libya and Syria, where the US intervened in existing internal conflicts that had already escalated into civil wars, are less clear-cut cases, and in Yemen, the main outside intervention has come from the Saudi military, with the US playing much more of a supporting role. This is an early sign of the kind of disappearing trick that imperial purity specialises in: to conflate the case of Iraq, where the US really did start a war, with the much more complex multipolar conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, only works if we deliberately ignore a great number of other players, or insist on treating them as being solely proxies for US interests.

Higgins mentions that there are around 4000 US troops inside Syria, but avoids comparing this to the number of forces deployed by other actors in the region, or asking too much about what they’re doing. The entire thrust of his article is based around depicting the situation in Syria as being solely about a US war against Assad’s government, so it’s unfortunate for his argument that those troops have been engaged far more in attacking ISIS – one of Assad’s enemies – than in attacking the Syrian state.*

And those 4,000 US troops seem a less impressive number if we bear in mind that one report estimated that there are also 20,000 Iraqi militiamen, around 15,000-20,000 members of Iranian-backed Afghan militias, 7,000-10,000 from Hezbollah, and 5,000-7,000 from various other international Iranian-supported militias, on top of a direct Iranian military presence of 8,000-10,000 IRGC forces and 5,000-6,000 from the Iranian army. And that’s before we even begin to take other interested players like Russia and Turkey into account. Even if we assume that all these numbers are gross overestimates, it’s clear that the 4000 US soldiers are a tiny, tiny minority of the foreign forces fighting in Syria, so to brand the country as just being a “site of direct U.S. military occupation” is an impressive display of the “peculiar kind of solipsism” that characterises imperial purity. It’s like talking about New Zealand’s war on Vietnam, Poland’s invasion of Iraq or Morocco’s war in Yemen – technically accurate in a narrow sense, but showing a somewhat skewed sense of perspective.

Laying out his broad theoretical/historical model, Higgins divides the Arab world into countries with “a history of Arab nationalist and republican state structures”, which are the ones burning today – “Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria” – and “retrograde monarchies that remain comparatively stable and enjoy friendly relations with the U.S. (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and so on)”. A canny observer may spot an interesting omission from this latter list – what about Qatar? It would certainly seem to fit much better in the second list, but it would be a bit foolhardy to bet on Qatar’s continued stability, as tensions are still high between Qatar and the other retrograde monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But the situation in Qatar is one that would be impossible to fit into Higgins’ preferred world view, since there’s no easy way to shoehorn Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia/UAE/Bahrain/Egypt/Chad/Senegal/etc on the other into “basically just puppets who can be used as shorthand for the US” or “oppressed noble savages”, which are the only two categories that Arabs or Africans can be allowed to occupy in the imperial purity worldview. Any remotely adequate discussion of the Qatar situation would have to start off by acknowledging that the rulers of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Chad, Senegal and so on are actually independent actors with interests that aren’t defined solely in relation to the US, or even the US + Israel, and this kind of thinking is an unacceptable challenge to imperial purity’s self-absorption.

Instead, in keeping with his US-centric worldview, Higgins proceeds to a broad overview of the region as being essentially defined by Israel, and by the attitudes that various states have taken with regards to the Israel/Palestine issue. From this perspective, the main things to note about Syria are that it is “an Arab nationalist state that professes anti-Zionism in its constitution” and that “U.S. strategists” tend to take a dim view “of the Syrian government’s relationship to anti-Israel forces”. This is politics at the level of states and politicians – politics which takes nation-states, assumed as a coherent whole, as a starting point, rather than assessing them as a product of the internal struggles going on within the territory governed by each nation-state. In other words, the Viewpoint Higgins adopts is the viewpoint of capital and the state. By framing the issue in terms of how Syria relates to Israel and Palestine, and how US strategists feel about how Syria relates to Israel and Palestine, questions such as, for example, what the Syrian government might mean to people living in Syria can be made to disappear. Imperial purity can perform some amazing disappearing acts.

Doubling down on his “Syria is defined by its relationship to Palestine and Israel, and so to the US” perspective, Higgins shares some quotes from the US ruling class about Syria’s involvement in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, and then offers the observation that “[t]he fact, for example, that left-wing Palestinian organizations were able to hold open strategy conferences in Damascus before the outbreak of war, is not in the slightest way insignificant, for either U.S. imperialists or for anti-imperialists”. This seems like one of those points where what’s sauce for the goose must logically be sauce for the gander: is it significant or insignificant that left-wing pro-Palestinian organisations are able to operate openly and hold meetings in the US itself? Is that one of the major factors that should inform our view of the US as a state? Here we can see the self-centred hypocrisy of imperial purity at play: of course Higgins would never attempt to characterise his own society using a metric as arbitrary as “can Palestinians hold meetings here?” The US is judged on its own terms, as an actor with interests of its own, as a subject, while Syria and other Arab nations are reduced to objects, mere backdrops for the struggle between the Palestinian goodies and the Israeli baddies.

Continuing with his selective blindness, Higgins reports that “The empire has resorted to scorched-earth and chemical weapon air attacks in parts of Syria. For example, “U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Maj. Josh Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30 mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on Nov. 16 and Nov. 22, 2015,” into Syria’s rural east.”

But is it correct to speak of the empire, singular, here? Given the reports of Russian and Syrian air forces using white phosphorus, napalm and cluster bombs, with Russian air strikes alone reported to have killed around 5,703 civilians by the end of September 2017, surely it would be more accurate to speak of competing empires, plural, employing scorched-earth and chemical weapon air attacks. Whoosh! There goes the magical disappearing act again, as the entire Russian air force vanishes under the invisibility cloak of imperial purity.

Again and again, Higgins displays his commitment to a narrative of the Syrian conflict as being solely a product of US intervention, and his willingness to ignore anything that might suggest any kind of agency on the part of non-US participants. He talks about 2011 as being “when the United States and its regional partners launched the war”, which, for anyone with a basic knowledge of the Syrian uprising, might raise a few questions, like: when and how exactly did the conflict start? Could anything have possibly happened inside Syria prior to US involvement? What is it that’s being disappeared here?

He concedes that “the struggle over the nature of private capital in Syrian society and the ruling Ba’ath Party will endure after the war’s end”, but follows it up with “For those of us living inside imperial states, our relationship to that struggle will chiefly be determined by our relationship to our own governments.” Again, this is the Viewpoint of the state and capital. From a ruling-class perspective, our most important relationship is the one we have with our own governments, but looked at from “the world turned upside down”, the most basic starting point of any communist analysis, our defining relationships, and the ones that give us the power to act, are the ones we have with other proletarians.

Certainly, the starting point for that has to be the proletarians closest to us, but for most of us, the local working class is likely to include Arab, Kurdish, Turkish and Iranian workers, whether they’re refugees from the most recent conflict or arrived here as part of earlier waves of migration. And, through them, we can end up connected to their friends and relatives elsewhere. Not to mention that, when we begin organising politically, we’re likely to come into contact with socialists, communists and anarchists from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds. Seeing our relationship to social and class conflicts in Middle Eastern and North African countries as being primarily mediated by our relationships with workers and revolutionaries from those countries seems far healthier and more sensible than viewing things solely through the prism of “our own” government’s connection to the events.

Or perhaps I’ve got it all wrong, and when there’s been protests and vigils for Aleppo or Afrin – or indeed Suruç or Ankara – in my area, I should have turned up shouting “Fake news! This can’t be directly blamed on the US, UK, or Israel, so everyone stop caring about this right now!”

Having briefly nodded at the possibility that Syrian society might actually contain a variety of different forces, and that Syrians might be more than just the passive victims of US attacks, he then returns to the more comfortable territory of the war on Syria, where “the U.S. war has targeted and exploded state institutions, which double as sites of social reproduction, from government buildings to schools”. The U.S. war. Has anyone else, I wonder, targeted and exploded state institutions? Hospitals, perhaps? To talk about “the US war” targeting sites of social reproduction, in the face of such a concerted Russian-Baathist air war against hospitals, feels like another variation on the imperial purity theme of “Syria without Syrians”.

He says that these attacks – just the US ones, obviously, not the Russian-Syrian ones – “constitute nothing short of a massive attack on social investment, the Syrian people’s wealth, for, as noted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as recently as 2013, “[state-owned enterprises] operate across all sectors in Syria”.” Of course, it’s fitting that Higgins’ first instinct is to quote the OECD, in keeping with his general instinct to relate everything back to Western/imperial ruling-class actors; but beyond that, it’s worth questioning the assumption that “state institutions” and “government buildings” can be described as “the Syrian people’s wealth”. When the Weather Underground, who Haider rightly identified as being among Higgins’ antecedents in the white/American/imperial purity tradition, bombed US government buildings, were they “attacking the American people’s wealth”? Or is it that, once again, Americans are recognised as three-dimensional and not just equated with their state, a level of consideration that Higgins refuses to extend to Syrians?

This is particularly exasperating because, just a few paragraphs prior, Higgins admits that there “were elements of the Syrian state [who were b]enefitting from and complicit with” neoliberal economic policies that drove growing poverty and inequality, which is the sort of thing that you’d think might complicate any simple identification between the state and “the Syrian people’s wealth”, but apparently imperial purity has rotted this kid’s brain to the point where he can’t even keep track of things he’s mentioned in his own article.

He then retreats even further from any attempt at actually analysing the contemporary situation in Syria, mentioning a 2005 text on the invasion of Iraq (a country which, in case anyone is having difficulty keeping up, is not actually the same place as Syria), which was informed by… the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s analysis of the situation in Palestine. Because why on earth would you bother examining what Syrians have to say about the contemporary situation in Syria when you can just recycle analyses of Palestine, a different country with different forces at play? If you have any doubt about the distorting effects of imperial purity, try to imagine this anyone getting away with this level of sloppiness when analysing those countries which imperial purity directs its, and our, gaze towards. I could be wrong, but I don’t think an article about the repressive counter-insurgency strategies of the contemporary US state, based on having read a few things about the policing of the 84-85 miners’ strike and informed by a cheerful willingness to assume that all imperialist states are basically the same, so if you’ve analysed one then you’ve analysed them all, would find many takers.

Higgins tells us that “we face an enemy with which partial compromises amount to total compromises”. Stirring words, but, even in the sense that he means them, they’d sound more meaningful coming from, say, the likes of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee or the Transform Now Plowshares folk than they do coming from a doctoral student at the University of Houston, someone whose research is funded by an institution with direct financial links to the US armed forces, the same institution that houses the Department for Homeland Security’s Borders, Trade and Immigration Institute.

But this is quibbling – the real point isn’t that Higgins, like everyone else, inevitably makes some compromises with the state that governs the territory in which he lives, it’s that he’s unable to see past the borders of that territory. The enemy that we face is a global system, and so, before we can even begin to assess the compromises that we’re making with it, we must first understand what that enemy actually looks like. Higgins’ perspective, which is apparently unable to cope with, for instance, the existence of Turkey and Russia, isn’t much use here.

He adds that “to oppose US imperialism is to oppose capitalism itself”, a piece of froth that can only be justified through the purest circular logic. It’s interesting to see where this point takes us, and to wonder how far back in history it applies – was Kaiser Wilhelm a hero of anti-capitalist resistance? Hitler? Or what about the modern day – is Putin opposing capitalism? What about the Turkish state’s attack on Afrin – the PYD/YPG/YPJ/SDF can definitely be said to have aligned themselves with the US, so does that mean that Erdogan is attacking capitalism itself? But then again, Turkey is a member of NATO, which is pretty much as aligned with US imperialism as you can get, so maybe everyone on both sides of the conflict in Afrin is fighting capitalism simultaneously? Throughout his article, Higgins delicately dances around the subject of who the US is actually fighting in Syria, but the logic of his position is clearly one that would call for principled anti-capitalist solidarity with ISIS.

Higgins then switches back to talking about Palestine – and, more importantly, talking about the US ruling class, the subject he finds himself endlessly drawn back to – saying that “Trump has offered liberation-minded peoples of the world a potentially invaluable gift [by] – this is the most important part – redirecting the eyes of the Arab popular classes towards occupied Palestine, restoring the rightfully esteemed place of the Palestinian cause in the hearts of the world’s disinherited”.

This bit makes an odd contrast to an earlier section of the essay, where he cited “Karl Liebknecht’s enduring warning belted out on the eve of world war: the main enemy is at home! [And] his additional imperative: “Learn everything, don’t forget anything!””

Obviously, the second part of the Liebknecht quote is pretty funny in the mouth of a lad so dozy and forgetful that he can fail to notice things like the presence of 20,000 Iraqi militia troops, 15-20,000 members of Afghan militias, and a direct Iranian military occupation of around 15,000 people, a dolt so addlebrained that he can note the existence of different forces with different class interests within Syrian society one moment and then go back to equating state institutions with “the Syrian people’s wealth” the next; but it’s the first of Liebknecht’s maxims that’s really interesting here. Apparently, those of us within the empire’s borders get to have an enemy at home; but this isn’t a luxury that imperial purity will grant to those noble Arab savages, so if their eyes can be redirected away from struggles in their own countries and towards the big bad Israeli foreigners, that’s a very good and important thing.

He adds that we’re seeing “demonstrations gain momentum in the Arab world, with the United States being the source of their ire”, which seems not entirely accurate. Of course, Iran isn’t a part of “the Arab world”, which might point to some limitations of using such an ethnically-loaded term to describe such a culturally and ethnically diverse region, but it’s still remarkable that, while Higgins was churning out this dreck, demonstrations in Iran were raising slogans – aimed at “their own” government – like “Let go of Palestine”, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life only for Iran” and “Leave Syria, think about us.” Clearly, these backwards folk are in need of a stern imperial purity lecture on what their correct priorities should be.

In closing, Higgins offers one final example of the breathtaking selective blindness of imperial purity, as he asks “what constituencies can be mobilized” to support his desired anti-war movement, and suggests a combination of “the Palestinian and Black liberation movements”. The omission here is striking: since 2011, the world has seen a huge wave of migration, as vast numbers of people have responded to the war in Syria by following the time-honoured instinct to get as far away from the front lines as possible. In their refusal to fight and die for any of the competing factions, these people have already taken practical action against the war, and while most of them have wound up in other places, there’s still over 18,000 of them living in the US alongside Higgins. Since these people might, generally speaking, be expected to have at least a passing interest in Syrian affairs, it’s curious that they don’t seem to cross his mind when thinking about what constituencies to mobilize.

It’s hard to say how much credit to give Higgins here – is it because he’s consciously aware of the fact that his Grassy Knollington narrative, where not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without the US having caused it, is not likely to convince anyone with actual knowledge of Syria? Or has ignoring the existence of troublesome foreigners who might complicate matters become such an instinctive reflex that Syrian refugees genuinely don’t even trouble his consciousness when he’s trying to think of people inside the United States who might have an interest in the region?

The last words here should really go to Asad Haider, as his (very slightly modified) observation really does sum the whole thing up:

I can only conclude that the strange phenomenon called [empire] produces a very deep and tenacious psychopathology, and that it is time for us to attack it openly…”

*as a footnote, I’m aware that, while I was working on this piece, the US carried out an airstrike against Syrian government forces. But rather than contradicting my point, this attack, which was seen as exceptional and unusual, unlike the constant day-in, day-out attacks on ISIS-controlled areas, demonstrates how rare it is for US operations that be directed against Assad rather than his rivals.

Originally posted at