And Is It True? It Is Not True! And If It Were It Wouldn’t Do! (II: What the Pips Squeak About)

Let’s consider the errors of the two Tweedlers, Bonfond and Toussaint, and their relevance to the rest of us. Essentially they consider themselves to be promoting the World Social Forum as an organisation struggling against capitalist imperialism. That is surely no bad thing in itself, for capitalist imperialism needs to be struggled against.
Now, in order to make use of an organisation to pursue a purpose, it is necessary to understand what that purpose is. What is capitalist imperialism? Surely, it is the construction of an empire, a region within which imperial authority can be exercised, for the purpose of serving capitalist interests. Imperial authority means that the inhabitants of this territory are not consulted in the way in which the metropolitan population is consulted.
For instance, recently elections have been held in Afghanistan and Iraq. These elections returned to power governments which are committed to serving American interests. Certainly in the Afghan case, the elections were rigged. In both cases, since the elections took place under foreign occupation, it is reasonable to assume that the occupiers were the real determinant factor in who won the election. In both cases, the President of the United States heartily congratulated the winner of the elections. In the case of Iraq, President Obama went so far as to declare that the election was a sign of national independence and sovereignty, and that he would warn anyone against trying to influence the independent Iraqi people by violent means. He was referring to the Iraqi resistance, which responded to the election with truck-bombs and with murderous rocket and mortar fire. He was certainly not referring to the 100 000 American occupation troops, the 100 000 American military contractors serving American interests in Iraq, or the Iraqi armed forces which were trained and funded by the United States and which operate predominantly under American command and control.
That’s imperialism. One may say it is imperialism in an extreme form, but in a sense it is also imperialism in a clear form.
There is, of course, subtler imperialism. There are the 15 000 U.S. combat troops deployed to Haiti after the earthquake there. 15 000 U.S. Marines are not useful as relief workers, as the Somalis discovered in Mogadishu, although doubtless they were helpful in digging graves for the 200 000 killed by the earthquake. All the same, they were sent there, presumably to ensure that nobody did anything in Haiti which would irritate U.S. interests, and also to show that whenever there was a problem, the U.S. was still capable of sending the Marines to ensure its control.
Well, how is the World Social Forum responding to this? The answer made by Bonfond and Toussaint is shameful; hardly at all to Haiti, and ineffectually to Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the World Social Forum is afraid to make a fuss about such an egregious set of examples. Perhaps it feels that there is nothing it can do. And yet, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq are areas about which an enormous level of fuss has been made, and about which the general public in the West (and almost everywhere else, actually) is immensely concerned. There should have been a gigantic flood of support which the components of the World Social Forum could have tapped in expressing indignation at how imperialism was manipulating Iraq and Afghanistan and shamelessly exploiting the victims of Haiti. No such flood was mastered or channelled. One should ask why not.
Perhaps the reason is that the World Social Forum might be considered strongest in the Global South (which is not really South, since it embraces the Asian mainland which is north of the Equator, and the northern half of Africa and much of and Central America). It is, however, South if seen from the United States and Europe.
Within these territories, Bonfond and Toussaint point to what they call “peripheral imperialist powers”. They cite as an example Brazil, and suggest that South Africa is another. These, therefore, would be countries which would be arguably easier to challenge than the imperialist power of the United States. Presumably, in challenging them, one is challenging imperialism.
Very well; where does imperialism come from? The United States, most obviously. However, the United States has allies. Britain assisted it in the invasion of Iraq. Many NATO countries assisted the United States in the invasion of Afghanistan. Canada and France assisted it in the invasion of Haiti which followed the coup against the Aristide government (and which was eventually followed by a UN occupation force mostly provided by Brazil). Evidently, in these countries where there is recognisable U.S. imperialism, this imperialism is aided by other forces. However, it is quite clear that Brazil is not a significant factor in this, having only been brought in thanks to U.S. control of the United Nations.
Are there other similar “sub-imperialist” forces elsewhere? Israel springs to mind; its military presence in the Levant provides not only a massive force which has been used against the Lebanon and Syria, but also a pretext for U.S. aggression in the region, protecting plucky little Israel. Pakistan has been expected to assist U.S. operations in Afghanistan (including the tribal regions between the states which are nominally Pakistani but probably deem themselves Afghan). Nigeria gave assistance to Western interests in taking advantage of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. Uganda and Kenya have helped the United States by occupying Somalia ever since the U.S. and Ethiopia destroyed that country’s government in early 2006. One could also argue that some other African countries, such as Chad, have served French imperialist interests, but this seems to be less a matter of direct control and more a matter of doing what oil and mining companies want.
One country which the Creator hasn’t mentioned is South Africa. It’s worth remembering that before 1994 South Africa served American imperialist objectives with great vigour, ensuring the dependence of Angola on American oil companies, of Mozambique on the UN and European aid, and preparing the ground for the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy later. It developed nuclear weapons with which to threaten aggression, and launched direct attacks on every state on its borders, while occupying Namibia in defiance of the United Nations. That’s imperialism for you, and there is no doubt that this was happening to facilitate American economic interests.
But it is not happening any more. Apart from the invasion of Lesotho in 1997, the only major South African military deployments abroad since 1994 have been peacekeeping operations in Burundi and the Sudan, and in both cases, while there were dubious aspects to the operations, there is no real reason to contend that either deployment had any imperialist content either for South Africa or the United States. (In the Sudan it was fairly clear that South Africa’s involvement in promoting peace between Khartoum and the SPLA was not favoured by the United States, although it delighted China.)
So then, what is the “peripheral imperialist” nature of countries like Brazil and South Africa? On close inspection their subjection to the United States is not great. Both countries enjoy cordial, close relations with American bogeymen in Cuba and Venezuela. South Africa has also developed fairly friendly relations with Iran. Brazil is a significant partner in the BRIC informal coalition of powerful developing countries (much more significant than South Africa) who, while they do not genuinely challenge American imperialism, at least posit a critique of it by their mere existence (much as did the Soviet Union before the Second World War). So this “peripheral imperialism” obviously does not mean alliance with the United States, although some (such as Patrick Bond) have certainly endeavoured to pretend that it does.
What seems to be meant here is that since Brazil and South Africa are both immensely more powerful than their neighbours, they are in a position to use their power to compel their neighbours to do what they wish to be done. This is not done by military force (neither country poses a real military threat to its neighbours — although South Africa has established a modestly powerful air and sea force, its army is feeble, and Brazil’s military is much weaker in comparison to its economic power than South Africa’s). It is done by diplomacy and by corporate penetration. South African mining companies are active across much of Africa, and retail and service industries have expanded into SADC and beyond. Brazil has done much the same in Latin America. In both cases the government has done what it can to protect and promote corporate expansion in these areas.
Now, it is probably true that South African corporations would have done better, in most cases, to invest more wisely within South Africa than to build fast-food joints in Maun or hotels in Livingstone. On the other hand, most African countries lack the capacity and the capital to develop their own mineral sectors effectively. Therefore, they need foreign investment. Is it necessarily worse that this investment comes from another African country? It could be worse, if the South African investment is crassly applied and focussed purely on short-term exploitation, but if the investment is made wisely then South Africa has a substantial interest in seeing southern African countries stabilise and receive “multiplier effects” from investments. This is more or less what Thabo Mbeki was talking about when he endorsed NEPAD and the African Renaissance, and there is no reason to assume that he was talking nonsense; he had considerable experience with inept, corrupt and maladministered African countries making promises on which they could not deliver. Hence the South African government can, and should, oversee such investments.
The same is true to a lesser extent of the Brazilian government (and, it should be noted, the relative strength of Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela or Chile as compared with Brazil is far greater than the relative strength of Namibia, Zambia, Burundi or Mozambique as compared with South Africa, so Brazil simply has less capacity to behave in an imperialist fashion in those countries even if it wanted to).
None of this means that Bond is, and to a lesser extent Bonfond and Toussaint are, wrong in being suspicious of South African or Brazilian intentions. Nation-states are not saintly institutions. However, they are also nationalist entities, and in that sense they are liable to act on their own behalf. It is surely when they become ruled by governments which are more concerned with the wishes of foreign powers, or when they are run by rentier oligarchies whose chief concern is to sustain the flow of foreign wealth into their private bank accounts, that they are most dangerous to their peoples and to those people inhabiting their neighbours. One should not be particularly frightened of countries which invest wisely in their neighbours, because at least such countries are behaving predictably. They are not conspicuous imperialist dangers; on the contrary, if they build themselves and their neighbours up, they actually make imperialism less likely. It was the enfeeblement of Iraq as a result of Saddam Hussein’s foolish rentier policies which eventually led to the recolonisation of Baghdad. Iran, more nationalistic and selfishly greedy, has contributed less, ultimately, to the success of imperialism in the region than either the Iraqi or Saudi governments have.
Of course, one may say, these countries are capitalistic. If one equates capitalism with imperialism, then it is perhaps legitimate to argue that one must attack capitalism at its weakest point. Possibly South Africa and Brazil are weaker links in the chain of capitalism than the United States, or Britain, or France, or Israel, or Nigeria, or Uganda, or — well, the list of capitalist collaborators with imperialism is fairly long, and a number of those countries might seem vulnerable to critique or even political attack. But Bonfond, Toussaint and Bond insist that the WSF (the Creator nearly said WTO, an unfortunate Freudian confusion) should focus its critique on South Africa and Brazil.
The problem with this focus, though, is that it places the critique of capitalism ahead of that of imperialism. With imperialism currently behaving in a far more brutal fashion than it did in the mid-1990s, this is problematic. Of course, if capitalism in Brazil and South Africa is promoting ever-increasing suffering, and if the governments of those two countries are conspicuously facilitating this suffering, and if it is possible to develop mass movements in defiance of this suffering, then these two countries could be effectively targeted by the WSF and its ancillary organisations.
Unfortunately, this is not happening so simply or in a way which is easily taken advantage of. The Lula government in Brazil is popular and the Workers’ Party is strong. The fact that it has many corrupt and neoliberal elements has not undermined it to any substantial extent, and in broad terms it is a government which is more desirable than any likely successful alternative, which would have to be backed by conservative big business and probably by the military as well. The Zuma government in South Africa is popular and the ANC is strong. It has been weakened by splits and purges, and it is certainly less popular than it was under Zuma’s predecessor, largely because it represents a substantial shift to the right as compared with its predecessor (as Lula’s government does not).
However, the South African worker movement, while it is critical of Zuma and his allies, does not see an alternative to them. What is more, the South African worker movement and the ANC would undoubtedly be extremely hostile to attacks upon the ANC and the Zuma government coming from what they would perceive as outside forces. South African Trotskyites like Patrick Bond have made no impression with their attacks on the ANC; it’s unlikely that the World Social Forum would have any more success. On the contrary, if the WSF denounces Zuma and his allies, the most likely consequence would be to modestly increase Zuma’s public support while cementing Zuma’s conspicuous links with big business and neoliberal intellectuals.
Thus, it seems that the current leadership of the WSF is devoted to precisely the wrong struggle. Unerringly, they focus their attention away from vulnerable targets which are also major dangers to the global Left, and devote their consciousness to much less vulnerable targets which pose little danger to the global Left and are not really a danger to the Left even in their own countries. It is almost certain that this absurd position has been created by the fact that people like Bonfond, Toussaint and Bond are uninterested in political reality, or in the positional warfare which the global Left must engage in, but only in promoting their personal ideological fantasies.
This helps explain why the global Left is where it is today, and why such people are not likely to help heal the diseases which are killing off the WSF.


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