The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Libya: Tainted Well and the Arab Spring

Any discourse on the Libyan situation by non-Libyans, and particularly by non-Arabs, must first be prefaced. Undoubtedly more eloquent than myself is Rogayah Chamseddine, a commentator on Western intervention:


"[Libya] is a battle which connects me as...a human being but in the end the vents transpiring will mean far more to those engaged, those who are Libyan. In the end the choice is theirs, not mine and not anyone else's...it does not matter in respect to me as a person whether or not the events taking place suit my ideals, opinions etc. I will watch and make remarks knowing that my beliefs are my own. I speak on behalf of no one else."


In the days preceding the launching of half a million dollar Tomahawk missiles into Libya, I and many other socialists and leftists had argued with fellow progressive and leftist friends ambiguous or leaning towards support for US intervention as to why we ought to oppose the euphemistically phrased “No Fly Zone.” Arguments were posited along the following grounds:

1) Western intentions are not to help the Libyan people, they are imperial in nature. The primary motivation is not to save civilians. This is the same military institution, led by the same state apparatus, that was responsible for massacres unimaginable to even Gaddafi. Thus, the motivation from the US and other traditionally oppressive Western states was to blunt the revolution's social potential and restructure Libya not for the Libyan people but for a thin layer of elites, the same conservative defectors who have simply made a political calculation to join the uprising. Furthermore, while control over the oil rich west is another important incentive for the West, the often ignored aspect is geopolitical. Libya's proximity to the still tumultuous Egypt and Tunisia, two revolutions where the social and class structure and, subsequently, the neoliberal order, could be potentially upset, is far more vital. This factor is especially significant because the West fears the possibility of a “permanent” revolution in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia. Up until this point the US/NATO have had very little control over the events in these two countries, and co-opting an uprising in Libya may provide the potential outlet for the US to secure itself in the region.  Essentially, having a devout Libyan client state next door would help secure Egypt and the region as a whole.

2) A "no-fly" zone is not a say it, do it sort of deal. It is extremely extensive, requires a full-scale military bombardment of Libyan aircraft and anti-aircraft, and has significant potential for even more civilian casualties. Not only that, the history of the NATO bombing of Serbia proves that a "no-fly zone," which innately includes mass bombing as part of its strategy, causes extensive damage, both in terms of civilians and infrastructure that civilians rely upon. The potential for a protracted civil war remains a real possibility.

3) The revolutionaries have not called for it, at least not all of them. The revolutionary leadership, some of which consists of elements of the Libyan regime, is decisively split. The ad hoc Transitional National Council (TNC), drawing delegates from across
Libya, but including significant personalities from the old regime, has already compromised with the West and claimed it would honor all international contracts signed by Gaddafi’s regime. A revolutionary leadership allying itself with Western imperialism and international neoliberalism will undoubtedly lose credibility among Libyans and the rest of the Arab world who, given recent Arab opinion polls, understand the imperial nature of the US/West.

4) Western intervention will do very little to bolster the spirit or the revolutionary process in
Libya. In fact, it will do the exact opposite. It will provide Gaddafi with an actual, material basis for his "You must stand behind me to stop imperialism" rhetoric. In other words, Western intervention will not do much except bolster support for Gaddafi and demoralize the revolutionaries who could not conquer the dictator through their own might. How many more army officers or soldiers are going to defect under the threat of military intervention or interference? One of the key things here is winning over rank-and-file Libyan soldiers and low level officers to the revolution. Even militarily, a no-fly zone may not put the needed pressure on Gaddafi, and would likely end in a stalemate in which ground troops would have to be sent in. It will be yet another excuse for imperial intervention to restructure what could be a popular revolution from below.

5) The working class towns like
Tripoli, Misrata, and Zawiya are the nexus points at which revolutionary organizing ought to occur. For the revolutionaries to secure victory, they cannot rely upon Western bombs and jets. There are not very many people in Libya, and these key industrial centers have overwhelming weight in terms of the resistance. A general strike would severely crush the Gaddafi regime, which could not survive without the economic exploitation of the Libyan workers it relies upon. This is their revolution, not the West’s chance to augment their neoliberal and geopolitical interests in the region.

Perhaps a sixth contention would have been that the US and its allies hoped to force an intervention, thereby discouraging other Arab revolutionaries from overthrowing US backed dictators. After all, two of their favorite clients had already fallen. But, if Gaddafi couldn't be brought down without foreign intervention, what about Saleh, Assad, the Saudi sheiks, etc. The US calculated and chose its least favorite dictator to backstab in hopes that it could blunt not only the Libyan revolution, but the entire Arab revolution.

Since posting those arguments, recent developments have only confirmed the validity of the original analysis. The West has intervened and, like clockwork, conservative hawks and cruise missile liberals, and even some sincere leftists like Gilbert Achar, are cheerleading this campaign and jeering those against it as heartless, placing abstract principles of anti-imperialism before the lives of Libyans. Some commentators even go so far as to claim anti-interventionists have insulted the Libyan people by accusing them of being ignorant of history and stooges of imperialism. Undoubtedly this has occurred in a sporadic manner, with non-Libyans accusing Libyans of capitulating and giving into imperialism, without seriously acknowledging the context in which they call for intervention. The call to save lives is a powerful and percussive one, undoubtedly. Yet, the crux of the anti-imperialist argument is not, and never has been, that the Libyan people are stupid. While I respect the position some Libyans like Tasnim, linked above, take (pro-revolution, pro-intervention but weary of Western interests), I have serious disagreements and believe, ultimately, even if the rebels succeed in removing Gaddafi, they will not win their freedom. Western intervention, undoubtedly, as Tasnim acknowledges, has nothing to do with saving lives. One question is, will it save lives in the long run?


Pro-interventionists accuse the left of promoting a callous disregard for Libyan life in order to preserve their sacred anti-imperialism. Perhaps, for some commentators, this is true. Yet, I think the words of Malcolm X are particularly poignant here:
Look at the American Revolution, in 1776. That revolution was for what? For land. Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. Number one, it was based on land, the basis of independence, and the only way they could get it, was bloodshed. The French Revolution, what was it based on — the landless against the landlord. What was it for? Land! How did they get it? Bloodshed! There was no love lost, was no compromise, was no negotiation. I'm telling you you don't know what a revolution is, because when you find out you'll get back in the alley, you'll get out of the way. The Russian Revolution. What was it based on? Land — the landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven't got a revolution that doesn't involve bloodshed...
Real revolution, almost universally, entails the loss of life. The death toll in Egypt is estimated at upwards of 700. In Libya it is potentially in the thousands. In Algeria, however, the cost of independence was in the millions. As Malcolm put it so brazenly, you haven't got a revolution that doesn't involve bloodshed. This is not to say the Libyans did not have the right, if indeed the call for intervention was a popular one and not the result of maneuvering generals, to determine from where they would receive help. Yet, it is undeniable that this choice would come at a cost.


Regardless, the Obama administration played the saving lives aspect up masterfully, crafting a narrative detailing the impending demise of Benghazi barring NATO intervention. White House advisor Dennis Ross conjured up the specter of Gaddafi slaughtering 100,000 people in the city. Presumably, the White House was operating on intelligence that none of the rest of us have. As Steve Chapman has pointed out, so far, the message to the American public has been “trust us.” The fact that Gaddafi did not massacre people on the scale of White House rhetoric in the city of Zawiya, in which Gaddafi captured, or in the cities of Misrata or Ajdabiya, which Gaddafi forces had virtual control over, did nothing to lesson the hysteric rhetoric. The truth is, we do not know what may have happened in Benghazi. Anti-imperialists may have to concede that in the short term some lives may have been saved in Benghazi, and saving lives is a good thing, but we cannot assume that in the aggregate, in the long run, that US intervention will "save lives." How many lives were saved when bombs started dropping? We will never know. However, rest assured it was not anywhere near the amount claimed by US officials. Even on a practical level, Benghazi is by far one of the most important industrial centers in Libya, and massacring the vast majority of the population would be an unthinkable price, even for a dictator attempting to grip onto power.

None of this is to defend Gaddafi, or pretend he’s really just a good guy that’s misunderstood. Undoubtedly deaths by Gaddafi forces have taken place. Undoubtedly the killing of civilians is real phenomenon, one which could be exacerbated. No, we ought to leave such hagiographic arguments to the neo-Stalinists who base their anti-imperialism on the warped conception that Gaddafi is somehow a leftist standing against a CIA inspired coup and imperialist aggression. Sure, imperialist aggression is a real thing, but the impetus for this uprising does not rest in the West, it rests with the oppressive nature of the regime in question.

Yet, the arguments for intervention are just as absurd and based on a variety of faulty assertions. First, interventionists imply in their case for military action that the US has the capability to act as the “good policeman” in the world, a fact which does not bode well with the history of Iran, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, etc. Case after case of US intervention has lead to the reversal of democracy, the reactionary forces sweeping the day. Libya appears no different. Commentators have pointed out the utter hypocrisy of US foreign policy, intervening in Libya but not in Yemen or Bahrain, not imposing a No Fly Zone over Gaza when Israel was massacring civilians there, collective punishment for simply continuing to exist. Yes, it is hypocritical if you look at US policy as humanistic, as life-affirming, as a rational way of pursuing human rights and preserving lives. Analyzing US imperial policy with an imperial framework, however, means recognizing that US policy is neither irrational nor hypocritical. Instead, it is a calculated, rational choice that aligns with imperial goals. For the sake of brevity, we will not delve into the prodigious research and run on the assumption that US policy is imperial and self-serving for the ruling class in nature.

The second idea, almost laughable, is the argument made that the “costs are too low to be generating a profit for the techno-industrial-military-complex.” The first problem, of course, is the assumption that the US state is primarily the hodgepodge result of lobbies and interest groups ina pluralistic society. This relatively narrow "lobbying for war" ideology is directly counter to the reality. Namely, the capitalist state and, by extension, the US imperialist state is intervening not simply to garner profit for weapons contractors, an ancillary benefit, but to accomplish its neoliberal and hegemonic goals in the regime. Furthermore, the idea that the “costs are too low” to make the weapon contractors smile is absurd in and of itself. The US ruling class is happy to spend $10, $20, $100 dollars of tax payer money to protect even $1 of private profit. There are no qualms with pumping public funds into war contractors, into protecting oil investments, etc. The empire bleeds the republic, and robbery is overt if you understand the class dynamic driving it. Finally, even if the costs are relatively low in comparison with, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, one cannot seriously argue that the military and weapons industries are not making a profit at $569,000 a pop for those tomahawk missiles with over 100 of them shot off in the first day.

The third fault in the liberal war propaganda lies in the idea that “there was already an active resistance there in the first place.” Sure, that’s true on the most superficial of levels. While it is true there was an active resistance against Gaddafi, galvanized by the revolutionary processes in Egypt and Tunisia, no one in the West has the intelligence capability to know how broad, how deep this movement was. Obviously, it was not strong enough to mobilize the working class majorities in Tripoli, for instance. Now, by all accounts, the armed rebels are not numerous, perhaps 1,000 with upwards of 15,000 non-armed volunteers. Likewise, they are uncoordinated, they lack weapons and training, etc. The working class in Tripoli, for instance, or Misrata or Zawiya, have not been able to coalesce the power of the working class as was done in Tunisia or Egypt. There exists no broad movement defying Gaddafi at every turn, like there was against Mubarak in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and every other Egyptian city. Yes, there was an uprising, a very legitimate one. Yes, there was resistance to his rule, but the strength of the working class was not yet enough to overcome, in full, the ideological (whether one of loyalty or fear, presumably the latter) nor military strength of the regime.

There is even some room for argument, although it strays dangerously close to the neo-Stalinism of the PSL or WW parties, that Gaddafi, despite the brutality of his dictatorship, maintains some sort of ideological hegemony given both the threat of imperialist intervention and the fact that economic conditions in Libya were not as bad as in Egypt or Tunisia and social policy subsidized education, housing, healthcare, etc. Whatever the reasons, the working class was not on the saddle. Instead, a hodgepodge team of armed rebels, led primarily by various conservative generals, the same generals who have whipped up anti-black racism aimed at sub-Saharan African workers to discourage a serious look at the class structure which has maintained them for so long, is kept alive under the auspices of Western planes and missiles.

Another argument presented is that “outside” commentators have no right to comment on intervention because the “Libyans” have asked for it. There is little talk, of course, of which Libyans asked for it. The conservative generals who have defected and hope to maintain their own position in Libyan society? US backing would maintain their own positions of power and, subsequently, it is perfectly rational for them to support it. Perhaps I missed when the Libyan people as a whole spoke on Western intervention.

Revolutionaries and activists from other Arab countries, like Egypt, have spoken out boldly against US intervention. In response, some leftists have pulled the “they are not Libyan” card, arguing that Egyptians simply do not have the right to speak on the behalf of the Libyan people. Fair enough, if they were “speaking on behalf” and not simply criticizing the decisions of conservative generals. It is not somehow oppressive to argue with brothers and sisters in the revolution, especially those who have just engaged in a revolution themselves, about how to go about the revolution. It is not oppressive to warn comrades about the mistake of relying upon Western intervention or, more accurately, allowing their conservative and military leaders to open themselves up to Western intervention because, after all, there is no serious and cohesive coalition that acts in unison in Libya. By no means has popular opinion been established and by no means can it given the circumstances. What we know is what we get from a relatively small group of individuals at the forefront, mostly conservative leaders of the old order who have jumped ship.

The Egyptians in no way are "speaking for the Libyans," they are speaking against Western intervention, understanding that the Libyan revolution is intricately bound up in the Egyptian revolution and the entire Arab revolution. Their fates are intertwined. There is far more of an organic link between Egyptians and Libyans, between their revolutions, than some who argue under the guise of “self-determination” wish to admit. We could also explore here the concept of Arab nationalism and Arab identity in relation to the Egyptian-Libyan connection, and how much of a right Egyptian socialists have to open up this topic of debate, but I will not pursue this digress at the moment.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that the Western intervention did NOT stop Gaddafi forces from killing people, a phenomenon which occurred in Yugoslavia as well. In Libya, atrocities are being reported from various places. Misrata, for instance, is under heavy siege and refugees have provided very disheartening stories. Instead of liberation, or pushing the rebels onto victory, the Western intervention has lead to a stalemate. The primary threat now is not air, but Gaddafi ground forces. Taking the liberal interventionism argument to the next logical step is, of course, advocating a ground invasion to protect civilian lives. Perhaps an occupation? Will the supporters of the No Fly Zone take this next logical jump, the only conceivable way without massive working class mobilization that Gaddafi will be put out? Time will tell, but what is clear is that only a full scale military mobilization would oust Gaddafi, and the experience of Iraq will, hopefully, deter any gung-ho proponents of a Libyan occupation.

All of this ignores the fundamental problem that Western intervention also costs civilian lives. As Richard Seymour explains:
What of the humanitarian remit? We shall skate lightly over civilian casualties that have been incurred by the bombing. Suffice to say that we are being exposed to the usual routines on that front. In one such routine, all claims of civilian deaths are attributed to the target regime, thus implying that they have no credibility. In another, they are caused by the regime using civilians as human shields, by refusing to camp out in a glow-in-the-dark tent in the middle of nowhere and thus make an easier target. In a third, slightly more baroque, Qadhafi is accused of digging up bodies and strategically arranging them to create the impression of a massacre. The truth is that we will not know, until some sort of retrospective excess mortality survey is carried out, what the human cost of the bombing is. And at any rate, one is reluctant to be drawn into the gruesome calculus of war - which, by implication, is that if 'they' kill more than 'we' do, then 'we' win the humanitarian argument.
Furthermore, Seymour continues, “even if Qadhafi were to be overthrown at this point, it would not have been by a popular revolution. It would not have been because the revolution broadened its base and spread into Tripoli or Sirte…Were Qadhafi to fall tomorrow, he would fall to a network of former regime elements and their external backers. The regime that replaced Qadhafi may well be more liberal, the sort that young Saif was to be entrusted to deliver at one point, but it would not be a popular or democratic one.”

These words must resonate. Even if the analysis presented above, of an uncoordinated and poorly trained army, of stalemate and the continuing potential for Gaddafi killings, turns out to be false, the Libyan “revolution” will be the furthest thing from the revolutions that have thus far occurred in the Arab world. It will be a revolution marred by imperialist intervention, lacking the democratic credentials, the broad popular base, and the vital experiences of humanization and liberation accompanying revolution that allows the oppressed to seize the time and control their own destiny. Libya may be lost, momentarily, and it may be the tainted well in the Arab Spring, but this does not mean the Arab revolution's fate is sealed. We can only hope the revolution carries forward.
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This blog is a personal blog written and edited by me. For questions about this blog, please contact Derek Ide (ruminyauee@hotmail.com). Anything on this blog may be used, circulated, disseminated, by readers in any setting except where profit it to be made from it. Feel free to use the work presented here in educational settings, activist work, etc. All I ask is that the blog be cited. I write for my own purposes. This writings presented here will be influenced by my background, occupation, and political affiliation or other experiences.

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Derek Ide 2011

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