Thursday, August 25, 2011

Libya and the left

US citizens have a relationship to their government which obligates them to oppose its crimes against themselves and others. Because this is an uncontroversial principle amongst the radical left, it is usually assumed to be part of a shared outlook.

While the US radical left inherits this relationship to its own government, it also has the potential to develop relationships with other popular or principled groups beyond what is implied through domestic resistance alone. We show support and solidarity for others fighting different fights, or the same fight in different places.

Regarding Libya, most of us are fine on the first point, rhetorically anyway, since that's what we are already doing, most of the time. We point out what's criminal about US foreign policy, for example, a lot. Good!

It's worth bearing in mind that what is criminal about US foreign policy is our responsibility, primarily. Libya is an example where a popular rebellion seeking to remove a dictator solicited international assistance to down the dictator's air force and other heavy military infrastructure. In the current geopolitical context, "international assistance" effectively means NATO, and NATO means the US. US interests are not Libyan interests. But none of this is the Libyans' fault, anymore than it was necessarily their fault that they needed assistance in the first place.

It's remarkable to me that portions of the US left get this backwards -- that because the rebellion required assistance, the rebels are compromised for having received the only available kind. Why weren't other kinds available? Why does the only kind available look so grim? We might look at ourselves -- at our relationship with our own government -- and not the people facing the tanks.

So on my second point, when it comes to showing solidarity toward people who not only don't control the global order but are sacrificing a lot more than most of us to change it, it's worth putting our responsibilities in perspective when compared to theirs.


Charles Davis said...

That you believe bombing a country is quite literally the only way of "showing solidarity" with an oppressed people is suggestive of a very limited imagination. It's also odd to see an anarchist suggesting average people are so powerless their only option to better their conditions is to appeal to the politicians and generals of NATO.

Anonymous said...


What Charles said.

The idea of pretending to support the underdog by speaking aggressively in a manner purporting to be on the underdog's behalf (a common intellectual gambit) doesn't absolve you of the Q on why bombing, and why NATO doing the bombing.

Destroy in order to save... a nice theme plied by those who aren't in a personal position to either save or destroy those who are being destroyed for salvation's sake.

JRB said...

Charles Davis:

I like to think I have been influenced by anarchism.

I'm not sure what you are talking about regarding "showing solidarity" by bombing. I do not bomb, and like I say, US foreign policy doesn't exactly represent me … so might I suggest a different interpretation?

C-Nihilist said...

"obligates them to oppose its crimes"

"what is criminal about US foreign policy is our responsibility, primarily."

sounded, on first and second reading, like you were saying that radical leftists not standing between the whirling death machine and its targets are in some way, uh, responsible for its crimes. and that also, perhaps strangely, not opposing the crimes against Libya, was the responsible thing to do. i have to think this wouldn't have seemed so cryptic if not for your prior posts on this topic suggesting that it would not be right to stand in the way of the help The Libyan People were requesting.

Charles Davis said...


No you didn't drop any bombs yourself, but didn't you advocate that the U.S. and its NATO allies drop them instead? It's not like you vocally opposed the bombardment being carried out in your name, so it seems like kind of a cop-out to say that US foreign policy doesn't "represent" you when in this case you actually came out in favor of the policy we're discussing.

And here in this post you're arguing that, shucks, the only way to provide "international assistance" in the current political context -- the only way in the case of Libya to effectively show "solidarity for others fighting different fights" -- is to back a U.S./NATO war, which implies the people outside the halls of government are powerless to affect change themselves.

Personally, I think there are better ways to support revolutions and rebellions, to show solidarity with others fighting different fights, than to aid what are often Pyrrhic military victories by groups whose ideologies we know little more about than the snippets we get in news reports, and in the case of Libya one that includes its fair share of men who just a few months ago were perfectly fine working for an authoritarian dictator. The people at the top, while indeed often horrible human beings, don't matter so much as the institutions and mindsets that make them possible. We'll see if real change comes to Libya, I just don't think Western military intervention is either the best or only way to aid that progression along.

JRB said...


Perhaps it is unusually nuanced, since it deals with two different relationships. One is our relationship to the state, which I lay out in the first sentence (and previously just assumed; others did not share my assumption). The other is our relationship to people who are fighting legitimate struggles, what we communicate to them, how we show solidarity, etc.

I've appreciated all along that many people want to preoccupy themselves with the first relation. Like I say, great. What I've suggested all along that we should be concerned about the second. When the two are conflated it's pandemonium, but there's not much I can do about the assumptions others are working from.

Charles Davis:

didn't you advocate that the U.S. and its NATO allies drop them instead?

This is not the kind of question you want be asking at the same time you are accusing someone having done it. It's a very good question, I grant you that!

Jack Crow said...

The entire argument depends upon a disproved premise: "Libya is an example where a popular rebellion seeking to remove a dictator..."

This is as far from the actual truth, and the facts to support them, as Bob From Brockley's argument that opposition to Israel is nearly always opposition from leftist "anti-semitism."

A gaggle of narcotrafficante, smugglers, bankers, CIA assets and royalists - literally damned royalists - are not a popular revolution.

Full. Damned. Stop.

JRB said...


That's true. It's not proven, and I am sensitive to that. It's just my best judgment based on the evidence I've seen.

Jack Crow said...

But in all seriousness, JRB, what evidence have you seen?

Not even the corporate press is wasting copy promoting the idea that this is a popular revolt.

And we really do have to consider the very first (and functionally, only) decision of the proto-state which was so small, so inept and so lacking in popular support that it couldn't get off the ground without British SAS management, was to form a central bank.

Without falling into the trap of arguing that Q was admirable and good because he was a smart and resilient survivor who knew that standard of living goes a long way to staving off rebellion, it is nonetheless significant and telling that this "revolution" promises to undo the gains of Q's regime, most especially with regard to his protection of the dinar, Libyan resources and Libya's regionally superior infrastructure.

JRB said...


Well it may be that you know a lot more about it than I do. I can only rely on impressions I get by looking at or listening to the news skeptically, anticipating bias, and so on; and my impression all along, in the context of the Arab Spring etc. is that this is basically a popular event, whatever and whoever its leadership may be. That's the basic impression. If we want to disagree on that point then yeah, we're talking about different things.

Jack Crow said...

What do you mean by "anticipating bias" in the context of the corporate news?

J Ho said...

Are we gonna have this fight every Thanksgiving?

Jack Crow said...


If you have the opportunity, RT has people on the ground in Libya, and analysts who (like McClatchy, to a lesser extent) are willing to call a tribal battle between royalists, eastern tribes and Qadiffi loyalists what it is: a civil war.

Not A Popular Uprising said...

Yeah, you're wonderful. So fiercely independent, not even NATO can sully a righteous cause for you. A true friend to the Libyans, whatever and whomever they are, and a much better leftist than your comrades, with their knee-jerk tendency to view this intervention through the prism of the past.


Happy? Or were your readers actually supposed to be persuaded of something else? We've had two rounds now of you arguing this shit in extremely bad faith. Are you done?

JRB said...

Jack: I'll check it out -- thanks.

Ohtarzie: I like the frank reaction -- and your blog!

Not sure how to respond to the accusation that I am arguing in bad faith. If your words hold meaning, they would seem to obviate any response at all.

Anonymous said...

what jack crow said.

jrb, i'm thoroughly befuddled at your take on libya. will you be applauding nato bombs in syria or iran next? the US/Nato *used* the uprisings in other N African/Arab lands to mask what's really happening in libya. that was actually apparent on day 1 of the intervention.

JRB said...


Jack Crow said my entire argument depends upon a disproved premise -- popular rebellion in Libya. My "take" is that it is more plausible than not; and my argument proceeds from this above.

The fact that states are self-interested doesn't bear on the question of whether Libyans generally endorse the revolution. It's possible that they do even with US/Nato involvement. To put it mildly, it seems to me the left, or substantial parts of it, is reluctant even to consider this possibility, which has led them into uncompelling territory in my view.

Jack Crow said...

It might seem like a minor quibble, But I argued that they are "not a popular revolution."

(emphasis added)

The toppling of Q might be popular with a broad range of Libyans, but that communicates nothing about the rebels themselves.

That 60% of Americans now disapprove of Obama, as an illustrating example, communicates little about their preference for Reverend Governor Goodhair.

Anonymous said... if the "locals" "want" it, a NATO bombing campaign suddenly becomes a force for good?

la Rana said...

honestly, I don't get it. it seems that you trade obscurantist observations in a deliberately considered tone, such that neither point nor argument is discernable, then retreat from every conceivable clarifying representation of what you've just said. Its like circa 2006 IOZ, absent wit, charm, intrigue or interest.

Bruce A. Dixon said...

The evidence is pretty much in that there was no "dictator's air force" mowing down civilians, that this was a ruse by US media and intelligence agencies to get their air war on.
How do you feel about swallowing that one now?

JRB said...

Well, there you have it. Case closed.