31 August 2011

The interventionist impulse and the right to revolution

Lots of people who are not Libyans are patting themselves on the back now that Col. Khadafy has been driven from his capital and apparently overthrown. In Newsweek, Niall Ferguson credits the U.S. and NATO for the people's victory, assuming their bombing runs and no-fly-zones to have been decisive. On NBC yesterday, Dick Cheney took long-distance credit, noting that Khadafy might have had WMDs with which to beat down the revolt had he not been intimidated into giving them up by the fall of Saddam Hussein. In The New York Times, op-ed writer Roger Cohen agrees with Ferguson that Libya vindicates an American foreign policy motivated by humanitarian interventionism.Cohen's model for intervention is Bill Clinton's war against Serbia, which is understood to have been based, like President Obama's war on Libya, entirely by the desire to prevent a "massacre" of innocents. That's the kind of war Democrats prefer, especially when it means no American boots on the ground to be blown off by IEDs. Cohen sees it as characteristically American, not because Americans are afraid to put boots on the ground, but because "interventionism is inextricable from the American idea" of itself as "a nation dedicated, however much it falls short, to a universalist ideal of freedom."

Marxists have subjected the ideology of humanitarian interventionism to a relentless critique ever since Clinton's time, when the more paranoid Marxists accused the U.S. of targeting Serbia solely because the Milosevic regime was still ostensibly socialist. With that critique has come a somewhat alarming polemic against the whole idea of human rights, at least insofar as the idea is used to justify humanitarian interventions or thwart revolutionary change. While I can agree with the Marxists that there's no such thing as "natural" human rights, I get worried whenever self-style communists disparage all rights talk. I do think that people can assert rights, so long as they understand that its up to themselves to defend the rights they assert, and that the assertion and the defense are necessarily inseparable in the absence of any divinity or "nature" to whom you can appeal. Intellectually I appreciate the Marxist argument that all such assertions of rights, individual rights especially, are conditioned by the prevailing social relations of a given time and place, and therefore can't be assumed to be universal and unchanging -- or, to use a different emphasis, they'll only be universal and unchanging as long as you can back up your assertions with more than words. I also understand that assertions of human rights by capitalist cultures, liberal or reactionary, are never neutral, and often prove hostile to rival assertions of rights, or right, that question the rights or rightfulness of capitalism. The worst-case scenario for a Marxist is the use of "human rights" as an excuse for "humanitarian intervention" against a Marxist regime accused of "massacring" reactionaries or counter-revolutionaries. But at the same time the Marxist critique of human rights and humanitarian intervention often sounds like special pleading for revolutionary coercion and terror, a ruthless assertion that no one has any kind of right to prevent Marxists from carrying out their historically-mandated revolutions by any means necessary. That strikes me as not merely the risk of a slippery slope but a demand for it, an insistence that Marxists be able to do anything to anyone as they see fit, against which there can be no appeal on any grounds. While I oppose the Libyan intervention on jurisdictional grounds -- Libya was none of NATO's business -- I have a problem with Marxists' wholesale rejection of the humanitarian-intervention principle. I assume that few Marxists actually endorsed the Khadafy regime, but I bet most of them opposed Obama's war on Khadafy, and less because it was none of Obama's business than because they thought that the same thing could happen to them if they got Khadafy-like power over a country at some point. In short, I can't help but wonder sometimes whether Marxist opposition to interventionism justified by human rights simply means that Marxists want to massacre people whenever they get the chance.

Whether that's true or not, it doesn't necessarily follow that Marxists did not want to see Khadafy overthrown. I'm not aware of any Marxist having said that the Libyan people had no right to rebel against Khadafy's rule. In fact, as Costas Douzinas asserts in his contribution to the Idea of Communism symposium, the one human right Marxists endorse unconditionally, and the one that trumps all other asserted rights, is the right to revolution. In his account, the main reason Marxists oppose most rights-assertions is because those, being vested in individuals or in property, only reinforce inequality while denying meaningful redress to those who perceive and oppose social injustice. Douzinas is one of those pessimistic Marxists who regard injustice as a permanent condition of human existence and recognize no eternal ideal of justice. While "the principle [of justice] has been clouded in uncertainty and controversy," he writes, "we know injustice when we come across it; its truth is felt." For that reason, the reaction to injustice -- revolution -- always has priority over assertions of justice in the form of rights, because "every time a theory of justice is put into practice, it soon degenerates into another instance of injustice." Douzinas notes that the founding documents of the American and French revolutions strongly assert the right to revolution, but that both countries acted quickly to suppress the fundamental revolutionary impulse by imposing the rule of law and immunizing individuals and property by granting them rights. In this sense, Douzinas might agree with Roger Cohen that interventionism on behalf of revolutions against tyranny is innately American, insofar as the American nation was born in revolution. Douzinas would argue, however, that American intervention in Libya represents a corruption of the country's founding revolutionary impulse, a projection of it away from the domestic sphere that comes with a rejection of its domestic relevance. Americans might be more faithful to their revolutionary heritage, Douzinas might say -- not to mention more faithful to the cause of humanity -- if they made a revolution at home.

1 comment:

Crhymethinc said...

"a nation dedicated, however much it falls short, to a universalist ideal of freedom."

One could argue that Gaddafi certainly isn't granted "freedom". So what, exactly, do they mean by their assertion? Looking at the "Arab Spring" it becomes clear. We fully backed Egypt - until it began to look like the Muslim Brotherhood would be elected into power. I have to wonder - and will soon find out - whether the same will apply to Libya. If the revolutionaries decided on an Islamic government, will we still support them? I doubt it.

What it really seems to mean, is that we support the "freedom" of any group we may think are pro-American and support the right to revolution of any such group against an "anti-American" government. So really, the American people, at least as embodied by our government, are little more than hypocrites who don't really believe in "freedom". They believe in the "freedom to be pro-American". There is a B I G difference between the two.