In oppositional politics, there are different ways of arriving at ‘what is to be done’, both practically and theoretically. In the U.S., one frequently practiced method is to watch the mouths of the imperialists and their ideologues and wait for them to say something or make some declaration, and then say the exact opposite and call that an anti-imperialist position; analysis is then retrofitted to justify the position.
The other way is to start from principles, observe the changes in reality, study the history of the social forces involved in those changes, and derive your own positions and demands, based on where you stand in the course of your struggles.
A lot of alarms have been ringing for the past four or five years, regarding interventionist strategies taken up by imperialist planners, in which under the guise of ‘democracy building’, truer aims of the American power elites (regime change where needed) are furthered by the CIA or any of the sixteen assorted intelligence agencies run by the U.S. (see: The Burbank Digest for exposes on these people).
Large sums of money have been and are being spent on creating seemingly spontaneously grown citizens’ organizations that shape and give direction to dissent among the populations over-lorded by governments not liked by the U.S. Such ‘revolutions’ as the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon — are sighted as examples of this ‘democracy movement’ type of moving of pieces by imperialist game planners. It is natural that, in these half-covert operations, human rights are used as a wedge issue.
Because of this push by the right into the discursive and practical area of ‘human rights’, some western leftists have abandoned this area of advocacy when it comes to countries they perceive as being under attack by the imperialists, and therefore most talk of human rights violations in such countries has become taboo, since it allegedly paves the way for the continuation of the imperialist interventions, and subjugation of more natives around the world.
Leaving aside the unjustifiable presuppositions of such a stance, this position completely yields, uncontested, a major domain of class conflict to the dictates of the right wing ideologues, and leaves it completely up to the right wing fanatics to frame this issue. Though it seems easy to forget, it is important to bear in mind that most of the ‘natives’ have been living under brutal social conditions for a long time, otherwise imperialists would never be able to exploit their misery in the first place (and here I am talking about places where supposedly the imperialists are not the direct and immediate over-lords).
Ironically, the more militant members of what I call the ‘Human Rights? Ba-Humbug!’ faction, actually fight most vehemently against the advocates of human rights in countries like Iran! So we have a situation where Iranian secularists — secular liberals, democrats and radical democrats, social democrats and socialists, supporters of student activists, labor and women’s rights activists, and all others — who for the past thirty years have been fighting for more rights in Iran, not only have a medieval theocratic setup with vast oppressive capabilities to fight, but now have the western leftists to fight as well!
This effectively amounts to the first ever anti-solidarity movement I know of, sort of launched by the western left! (It’s only ‘sort of’, since none dares give it formal expression!) An innovation in ‘socialist’ surrealism!
But just because the right wing exploits a dire situation, in the process contextualizing ‘human rights’ in an upside down manner for its own agenda, it does not mean that we should just drop this concept. What’s wrong with offering our own, leftist, humanist, emancipatory contextualization of human rights, something that is so fundamental to our strategic dreams? A contextualization that offers both a critique of the imperialist abuses of the concept and demands an expanded concept of human rights everywhere is the true challenge that the western left faces in this area, yet seems to be desperately wishing it away.
But, what of the second road to ‘what is to be done’ about human rights? Start with a basic principle: Democracy (the real thing, not just having some elections) is anathema to imperialism. Therefore, when people’s democratic rights are crushed anywhere, that’s an actual present, or a potential future, victory for imperialism.
When labor rights activists in Iran, for example, are jailed, tortured and/or executed for, judicially speaking, completely absurd ‘crimes’ such as ‘fighting against god’ (whereas in reality, for example, they’re being persecuted for organizing against the ravages of capitalism in their locale), this lowers the floor on the workers’ rights and wellbeing everywhere in Iran, and is to the long-term benefit of the imperialists (as well as, naturally, to the benefit of the local capitalists all the time).
When women are kept under the thumb of an oppressive misogynistic and patriarchal regime, this also lowers the floor for accepted/acceptable social misery OVERALL (not just for women), and this is very beneficial for the future or current plans of the imperialists (not to forget the local capitalist pigs who love it too; what with the four full-time wives and the infinite number of temporary wives they can have in that system).
Those two items should suffice. You can extrapolate in the same manner in all areas of social oppression allowed by the theocrats ruling Iran (non-existent political rights of assembly and the right to form independent political organizations, no free speech rights, no cultural national and religious minority rights, forget completely about gay and lesbian rights, the list goes on.)
Why trash human rights?
For some leftists in the U.S., ‘human rights’ is always in between inverted commas, particularly since the political culture in the U.S. is very much inclined to single-issue politics. But even (especially?) for those who think in more programmatic fashion and in terms of platforms representing social demands and solutions, the human rights topics are separate from and subservient to fighting for overall change of the system, and definitely subservient to the ‘socialist project’. This is a grave mistake.
Let’s imagine a somewhat inverse situation. It would not be acceptable to most American socialists if I were to say, for example, “It’s not really worth spending so much time and energy on things like, ‘Free Mumia!’ or ‘Reform the Prison System!’ or ‘End Death Penalty!’ Those are side-issues; they take away from the fight against imperialism, which is the most important conflict, overshadowing everything else. Plus, those sorts of campaigns narrow the horizon on the larger issues.”
To that, an informed American socialist could say that the oppression of the African Americans (which by nature must include the persecution of black radical leaders) is structurally tied up with American imperialism. Without (slavery and) racism and its uninterrupted existence under morphed dynamics throughout the different stages of the North American modern social history, American imperialism most likely would not have materialized in the first place. Therefore, the fight for human rights and dignity of the African Americans (and therefore the defense of their radical leaders wrongfully imprisoned) is integral to a socialist project in the U.S., and all those so-called ‘reformist’ slogans are just and even revolutionary demands because they address part of the social conditions currently oppressing large sections of the working classes.
The situation with political prisoners in countries like Iran is very much analogous to the above scenario. Political prisoners represent the most radical of the activists working against oppression in their societies, and their persecution is structurally required, a part and parcel of the continuation of oppressive class-based injustices in the global south.
So, as global southerners, our fight for democracy and human rights must at the same time be an anti-imperialist struggle, just as the struggle of African Americans for social justice must by necessity find its anti-imperialist edge if it is to succeed in the long-term.
Now, I know I’m not the world’s dumbest man, but I just can’t see why some tend to talk like leftists, but act like the right. Are they on a mission to confound, or are they truly confused?
I think deep down, for some people who have ended up in the left, for one reason or another, their overall attitude is tainted by cynicism. Not saying that this is a huge crowd, but the presence is significant enough to warrant a little something about cynicism.
Here I have in mind a person who, knowing something about the U.S. government’s terrible crimes, to my statement, “Iran’s government tortures political prisoners!” does not say immediately, “Well, let’s get together and fight both those bastards!” but says instead, “Oh, yeah?! Big deal; the U.S. government does it too! Take a number and join the line!”
Love … so hard to find! Such responses indicate deep cynicism, nihilism and narcissism, all of it boxed up in a finely bejeweled self-referential worldview.
When I say to a man or a woman that so and so is being tortured in Iran, what does the western cynic imply? That, “If WE – the repository for all good – do it, then of course you little, lesser people do it, too!” Hear the racism?
And so it goes with the cynic, as the bottom drops farther and farther out of sight.
The dominant rhetorical schema here is that of evasion. Evading what’s real. Evading the responsibilities of looking at the reality and analyzing it, talking to others about it; evading doing the hard work of studying things before offering analysis, and instead jumping to the first knee-jerk reaction that comes to mind; evading learning how to ask the right questions, taking the right actions, accepting that you could be wrong and make mistakes, learning from mistakes, actions and their results, and on and on.
In the realm of a discussion related to ‘human rights’, the cynic elaborates in reasonably authoritative sounding language, for example, that working on the human rights situation in Iran is really the work of the Iranian people. People outside Iran should just stay quiet about that. Especially right now! (The present always carries exceptionalities!) If you can do something to stop ‘your own’ government (the U.S., the U.K., what have you) from abusing human rights, do that. But, don’t meddle in other people’s business.
Ironically, a good number of people most likely to say something like that (Iranians among them), especially right now (!), regularly advocate without any qualms on behalf of other nationalities such as the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, or at one point advocated on behalf of East Timorese, or black South Africans fighting apartheid, and participated in lively international campaigns of solidarity with the people of El Salvador. So, of all the people, they should know best about the importance of international solidarity movements in achieving historical goals. So, what is it that makes them stop seeing the harm they are doing by refusing solidarity to the people of Iran, living under a theocratic dictatorship?
‘Human rights’ must be taken out of the inverted commas between which it exists in most people’s minds; it is not a single-issue, a one-track, way of looking at social struggles for justice.
Socialists familiar with the Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 must know how Marx felt about the need for total revolt against a social system that alienates all from all.
Spreading and reconstituting alienation of laborers, men and women, from their means of independent survival (e.g., during the historical period of primitive accumulation of capital, and still to this day), the alienation of laborers from their tools as well as the products of labor (in the manufactories and factories, and even small, mom and pop subcontracting workshops), and the alienation of workers from the entire process of labor; and ultimately, the overall alienation of men and women from other men and women, and the maximum atomization of societies — these are central processes of control, from the standpoint of Capital and the States that represent it.
If we take the kernel of the concept, alienation, and apply it to ‘human rights’ as a much larger issue (taken as including social economic justice), then we can understand that imprisoning social activists is not an incidental case of random injustice practiced a lot in some locations and less so in others, but is a symbolic and necessary social act on the part of states representing capital that can and does happen everywhere. It is to quash preventively any ideas by any others about daring to oppose, it is to spread terror in the hearts of the doubters and skeptics lest they actively turn oppositional, and it is meant to freeze any hopes of disrupting the alienating processes needed by capital’s endless accumulation.
I leave it up to the reader then to answer the question: To show or not to show solidarity with a man or woman, anywhere, who attracts the wrath of any capitalist state; to support or not to support his or her acts of defiance?
A grave fallacy
It is often taken as a point of departure, often assumed, that imperialism and its structures are external to the local socio-political conditions existing in separate nation-states in the periphery/global south. (This is separate from the fallacy that assumes imperialism is simply the foreign policy of powerful states.)
In reality, imperialism is the whole that is larger than the sum of the individual local conditions of all the class-based social existences and injustices on the globe. Put differently, although the sum of the local class-based injustices everywhere does not add up to all the capabilities of (or possibilities for maneuver by) the imperialists, those local injustices greatly contribute to and significantly define the conditions within which the imperialists are bound materially.
The flip side is: the more real democracy exists in more locations in the periphery, the more levers of economic and political powers are held in the hands of the people, and the less able are the imperialists to maneuver and position themselves for long-term survival.
By democracy, I do not mean having mere elections, though real and meaningful elections must always be present and on a far more universal level, with the right to recall at any point. But much more so, these electoral procedures must be in relation to some real social substance; Democracy means real and visible control by the people over the political and economic social factors that determine their wellbeing.
So, the fight for real democracy must by necessity include the fight for human rights as a permanent duty; for the rights of the people, social groups, communities, and yes the individuals are not and cannot be taken as some political expedience. As socialists, we are fighting for a society in which the free and unfettered development of the individual is the precondition for the development of the society. That fight starts right now, not after some abstract utopian miracle brought to earth at a moment in some unknown future.
Imperialism and the local miseries
Just as it is ill advised to separate the fight against a brutal prison system in the U.S. from the fight against imperialism at home, it is harmful to conceptually disconnect the fight for democracy and human rights in the global south from the anti-imperialist fight.
What we have to recognize, if we are to build a true internationalism, is that imperialism is, in its essence, the sum-total of all the local miseries and injustices aggregated in the world, plus some (more on this, below).
By creating and recreating anew each day a world, in which a thousand-and-one layered, myriad differentiations of misery and social injustice are the routine, imperialists create a multitude of spaces into which they can crawl, either in their overt, institutional forms (extraction of raw materials and resources by their corporations seeking lower taxes, lower wages and/or lesser environmental internalization costs; or, CIA overt access; or, when needed, armies of war), or in their covert guises (George Soros-type ‘democracy proliferation movements’, covert and semi-covert ops, etc.).
The ‘plus some’ in the above quasi definition is important if we are to fully understand the workings of imperialism. The ‘plus some’ is all the structures, all the institutions and their histories. But, institutions and structures built on misery and injustice cannot last forever. Which brings us back to the radical human agency, to the necessity of fighting injustice and misery everywhere and anywhere we can, with a truly internationalist mindset.
Put very simply, we have to realize that we are all just as important. I know that this is a big jump and quite difficult for a western reader to accept immediately, or easily. But, happily it is true.
Every locality is equally imperative. No locality has any more import nor should hold any arrogance over any other locale. The more democracy we can create in more localities of the globe, the more areas of maneuver we remove from the imperialists. The more areas are liberated, the more exponentially the balance of forces shall be inverted.
So … Why leave all the playing field to the imperialists by playing it cynically? If we start from solidarity, if we take our multitudes of ideas and opinions and angles and contributions as something positive, and not something amounting to ‘cacophony’, then we’ll find our strengths more readily.
But, step one: if you suspect that you may suffer from, or if like me you have observed yourself at times in the company of, cynical thoughts, even if but for fleeting seconds as they might have been, then find those thoughts and interrogate them; and watch them dissolve.
And take human rights seriously; for else, real humans won’t take you seriously.
Reza Fiyouzat can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
He keeps a blog at: http://revolutionaryflowerpot.blogspot.com/