Anti-Americanism must not become a pillar of left-wing thinking, says ALEX MILES
Of all the clichés attached to the United States of America, one of those repeated most often is that it is a land of contrasts. Clichéd it may be, but the statement is also accurate.
The ‘land of the free’ is also the spiritual home of the free market, and the unabashed enthusiasm displayed for capitalism and private enterprise has drawn as many, if not more, critics as it has supporters. Left wing movements, both within the US and worldwide, see embodied in it all that they believe to be wrong with society: rampant inequality, privatisation, racism – both perceived and actual – and, underpinning all of this, an innate conservatism which seems at odds with a country so comparatively young.
As such, should it really come as a surprise that hostility towards the United States forms such a fundamental part of left-wing thinking? Perhaps not, but I feel it’s imperative that anti-Americanism does not become an ideological requirement of the left. At the present time, leftist movements worldwide have a vital role to play in ensuring that developments such as globalisation work for the people, not vice versa, and I believe this cannot be accomplished if the academic and social myopia already prevalent in some circles continues to spread throughout the left. Like anti-Semitism before it, anti-Americanism must not be allowed to become, to quote August Bebel, ‘the socialism of fools’.
At the same time, however, it is important to recognise that left-wing anti-Americanism has not formed in a vacuum. Both the internal character of the US and the way in which successive governments have conducted themselves in foreign affairs, have in no small way contributed to its negative image. Those who supported the revolutionary government in Cuba, the activities of FARC in Columbia, or even the USSR, point to the United States’ aggressive interventionist approach to socialist regimes, as well as the policies of the US-led world trade organisation (WTO). In Why do People Hate America? Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies discuss ‘America and the world as America’, looking at the many instances, from Afghanistan to Zambia, of countries adversely affected either directly or indirectly by American activity.
In addition, lack of protection afforded to workers’ rights, continuing racial inequality, strict laws on drug use, and a host of other social issues and domestic policies are rightfully opposed by leftists of different stripes at home and abroad. All this, from a left wing perspective, is as it should be. Clandestine, often immoral, support for violent paramilitary groups, such as the ‘contras’ in South America, cannot be justified, and the parlous way in which the US working class has been treated cannot be readily accepted by many, let alone those who consider themselves to operate from a ‘socialist’ viewpoint.
Historically, Americans have been heavily in favour of ‘small government’ and state non-intervention, both in business and in the private affairs of citizens. While the vast majority of the left would support the right of the individual to have a private life free from inter-ference by the state, the same cannot be said for market deregulation, the ‘business version’. From an outside perspective, however, (and increasingly, from within) freedom seems to have increased exponentially for business and enterprise, while being removed from individuals almost as quickly.
Both the major political parties would be considered right wing in most other countries, and both are funded heavily, if not exclusively, by business and businessmen. The Patriot Act, instituted after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, is seen by commentators as, at best, a stringent temporary measure and, at worst, an indefensible measure, sweeping away civil liberties.
In essence, America is not perfect, and there is much to criticise. At the same time, however, much of this criticism comes from within the US, which illustrates a key point – the continued existence of freedom of speech. Noam Chomsky, for example, has made a career out of attacking almost all aspects of US policy, accusing successive governments of being complicit in the torture of Palestinians, for example, while remaining a lifetime resident there. This simply cannot be said of countries such as Iran, North Korea or Burma, to name just three.
So why is it that America is given this ‘special treatment’ by so many on the left? Why is it sneeringly referred to as a dictatorship when there are still real dictators in the world, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe? Why is its leader compared with Hitler? Such statements are of interest, since personal attacks, generalisations and moves away from actual policy discussion have long been criticised by the majority-left opinion as the tactics of right wing groups.
Some writers, such as Oliver Kamm and Christopher Hitchens, believe it’s symptomatic of the despair many leftists feel at the way global politics has developed since the 1980s. If true, this is certainly understandable. In particular, the development of ‘third way’ politics, exemplified by Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Helmut Kohl in Germany, has left many people without any real parliamentary representation, and ‘progressive’ or socialist movements and policies are increasingly seen as outdated.
Faced with an unfamiliar political landscape, where the issues of leftists and leftist parties are either considered irrelevant or have been absorbed and repackaged by more centrist parties, the two easiest options are to retreat into obscurity and ‘preach to the converted’, or to shift to knee-jerk populism which is often more about being ‘anti-’ someone or something than adopting considered stances.
In that sense, anti-Americanism gives the newly populist left an ideal cause – not only is the US, in many respects, capitalism made flesh and so a natural target for left-wingers, but it’s also an easily identifiable ‘bad guy’. Unlike the somewhat less immediate ‘bad ideology’, it is far easier to attract both casual and firm support in this way, in particular from those who do not normally involve themselves with politics. This certainly seems to be true of groups such as the Respect party, who have narrowed from their original remit to focus on opposing what they see as US ‘imperialism’. ‘Anti-fascist’ groups in Italy have followed a similar course, with some going as far as Respect in openly supporting Iraqi insurgents against American and British troops in the conflict.
Adopting anti-American-ism for the easy support it gains, while ultimately self-defeating, is not morally problematic, nor a stance that betrays the left in any real sense. But the devil, as always, is in the detail. And the devil is where the support – moral, political or financial – of those groups who define themselves by their anti-Americanism, ends up flowing. For example, Respect’s most celebrated member, George Galloway MP, has declared his support for the ‘insurgency’ in Iraq, while maintaining that he is ‘anti-war’.
This is a result of dogmatic anti-Americanism taken to its logical conclusion. Yet it is increasingly seen as a reasonable position to adopt. This moral relativism, as it has become known, leads to a bizarre argument – that America is always as bad as, and often worse than, its international rivals or adversaries. Such relativism can and often does cloud the judgement of politicians, non-governmental organisations and journalists to such an extent that their conclusions are, at best, heavily suspect and, at worst, libellous and insidiously racist.
One of the most open examples of this thinking, and the damaging impact it can have, is the ongoing ‘debate’ over NATO intervention in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing of the region by Serbia, ordered by the then Serbian premier, Slobodan Milosovic. Several prominent leftists, including Chomsky and the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, allege that the intervention was US imperialism, and opposed it because of this.
After the metaphorical dust had settled, the extent of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Serbians became clear (trials of some of those implicated in these actions are ongoing) and many felt that military action had been vindicated. This view was not universally held, however, and some on the left went to extraordinary lengths to justify their previous stances.
Pinter, for example, is a signatory to a document which called for the immediate release of Milosovic, prior to his death. And Chomsky cemented an already growing reputation among his critics as a revisionist by supporting allegations in LM (Living Marxism) magazine suggesting that footage of the Srebenica massacre had been faked by ITV News. Indeed, he has gone on record stating that the stories coming out of Srebenica were ‘probably not true’.
In this interview, Chomsky was challenged about his use of the word ‘tantrums’ to describe anger from journalists who had witnessed the aftermath of the Srebenica massacre. Was their anger, he was asked, not entirely reasonable in the face of denial of these events, especially given that many of them saw the impact such denials had on those who had survived the events? Chomsky said this was a ‘western’ position to take, adding: ’We are used to having our jackboot on people’s necks, so we don’t see our victims. I’ve seen them. Go to Laos, go to Haiti, go to El Salvador. You’ll see people who are really suffering brutally.’
Here the moral relativism embraced by thinkers such as Chomsky stands out clearly – outrage in the west, let alone intervention as a result, cannot be justified because of oppression, perceived or otherwise, by the west (and particularly by America). Again, opposing western aggression
is wholly understandable if, I believe, often misguided, but it is going too far to attempt to justify, minimise or deny outright the actions of non-western states, organisations or individuals as a result.
Much of the United States’ foreign and domestic policy can, and should, be critiqued from a left-wing perspective. However, there remains a danger that legitimate criticism of America can spill over into the ideological anti-Americanism of Chomsky, Galloway, Pinter and others. While such thinking is almost as old as the country itself, it should not be allowed to move from a side-effect of leftist thinking and activism to a defining pillar.
Proscribed thinking did much damage to the left in the 20th century. It must not be allowed to derail it in this one.
Alex Miles studies at Leeds Metropolitan University