Anti-imperialists should oppose imperialism anywhere, everywhere

May 23, 2022 10:52
Photo: Reuters

In reading the titular statement, one may – most naturally – think this is a self-evident statement. Surely, if one opposes imperialism – defined here as the subjugation of a party of independent sovereignty, or nation-state, at the hands of an empire-seeking and -constructing, aggressive party – then one should oppose it anywhere and everywhere, irrespective of the specific identities of the agents involved. Surely, it would then logically follow that imperialism must not, and cannot, coexist with those who brandish the anti-imperialist flag, hailing with pride and gumption the demise of the colonialist empires that had once dominated global politics throughout the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

One would think that. One may very well think that. Yet alas, most individuals inhabiting Planet Earth tend to be more… morally dexterous. For many, anti-imperialism is but a cheap excuse – it is less a genuine commitment towards ending the empire, and more an opportunistic slogan and afterthought, tacked onto political campaigns and power struggles. To oppose imperialism hence becomes a trivial pursuit – one that is carried out flamboyantly when the political need arises, only to recede into irrelevance when the imperialist party is, well, the very actor who had been up in arms about others’ empires a few fleeting moments ago.

As a contrarian, I hold a slightly different view. I posit that anti-imperialism ought to be a way of life. It ought to constitute a consistent and robust set of values, that stand in favour of peoples’ ability to self-govern provided there is genuine consent and workable arrangements; that stand aligned with principles of autonomy and de-colonisation, as Fanon terms it. For far too long we have endowed certain powers in our world with the pseudo-moral authority to chastise, to condemn, to designate what is or isn’t just. Indeed, the classic move being one where a power that actively transgresses upon human rights and tramples the rights of indigenous peoples to govern and live in peace, lashing out at other powers for their ostensible imperialism. After all, it is much easier to deflect, than to reflect; to accuse, than to apologise.

There are three reasons why anti-imperialists should hold a zero-tolerance policy towards imperialist thoughts and undercurrents, even amongst ‘allies’ and ‘like-minded partners’. Firstly, on normative consistency. It would be bizarre to posit that one can simultaneously think, “I really like napping in the afternoon!” and “I hate anyone who naps in the afternoon, for that is a sign of laziness!” These two statements are not formally contradictory, yet there exists an apparent tension between them that – if mishandled – would result in a deeply diabolic and disturbing fragmentation of the practical identity (cf. Korsgaard). Similarly, for anti-imperialists to say that, “Imperialism in contexts A, B, C is clearly wrong!” whilst valourising imperialists in “contexts D, E, and F”, is quite simply untenable. At best it reflects conceptual and systemic confusion; at worst, it suggests a volume of duplicitous hypocrisy that one should only expect from career bureaucrats and politicians who have made a career out of telling one damned lie after another.

The second reason concerns efficacy. I would posit that the perceived discrepancy between espoused values and substantive actions, professed and enduring support, would only weaken – as opposed to bolster – the credibility and legitimacy of anti-imperialist movements in the long run. Consider this: an individual that simultaneously chastises a military alliance for inducing war and conflict, as well as sowing the seeds for fragmentation in their ‘enemy’, and yet that excuses a brutal and barbaric invasion as ‘natural defense’. Or, indeed, consider someone who professes to be anti-colonialism, and yet tacitly supports and finds themselves in agreement with colonialist movements proclaiming or advocating psychosocial re-engineering. I mean, such inconsistencies seem implausible, and yet are ubiquitous at an age where reason is giving way to emotion, and populism has crowded out the space for genuinely profound intellectual discussions. Ultimately, however, rhetoric and arguments founded upon such shaky and self-defeating grounds quite simply won’t cut it. You cannot possibly convince anyone to subscribe to your ‘principles’ if you have none in the first place.

Finally, anti-imperialism would only prevail, if all who stand against empires unite! It is through collective wisdom and organic solidarity that empires fall. This adage holds across a multitude of levels – the organisational and logistical, when it comes to the pooling and sharing of core resources; the ideological and ideational, when it comes to synthesising and reconfiguring ideals and values in constructing a more cogent and emphatic case against the empire; as well as the economic – the best means of overthrowing a mercantilist empire’s monopoly and stronghold over networks of trade and commerce, is to organise ourselves into parallel, anti-imperialist systems of mutual solidarity and strength. To paraphrase Marx, the oppressed, the wretched, the subjugated and enslaved of our world, unite!

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Assistant Professor, HKU