Agent-Oriented Anti-Imperialism


I recently found myself reading over the nascent CPRSJ’s principles of unity, and while I don’t really care to comment on the organization itself, I was particularly struck by the usage of a certain term in the document. The term was “subimperialist”, used in to reference to American and Russian allies in the Middle East (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran). It’s the first time I’ve seen this phrase used before, and, in my mind, it immediately conjured up images of evil minions in the service of a villain in some action film or video game. The idea of Israel as a sub-boss  you have to beat before you can take on the U.S. is an amusing one, but what is less amusing is that this simplistic conceptualization of geopolitics actually has held a great deal of influence in the Left for decades. Anti-imperialism is far too often equated with simple opposition to the actions of specific countries, deploying rhetorical phrases like “sovereignity” and “self-determination”. The nation-state is placed at the center of this discourse, which is why it’s so common to hear talk of American imperialism or Russian imperialism, but never of imperialism in itself.

International capital is a network of relations, and it is these relations that determine the ways in which its various components function. On both a national and international level, the actions of institutions are shaped by a number of social, economic and political factors. In this sense it can be said of international politics that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, as the parts themselves can change and shift around without necessarily affecting the nature of the relations that form the structural foundation of the overall system. The political and economic systems that comprise global capitalism are made up of interconnected elements, and a proper understanding of these systems’ workings cannot reduce them to a patchwork of autonomous polities. If the nature of each polity is the result of its position within a larger framework, then positing the cause of its actions in a merely internal self-determinacy would be a serious misunderstanding.   This is a misunderstanding common among leftists, who exhibit what I call an agent-oriented anti-imperialism.

Agent-oriented anti-imperialism, as the name would suggest, emphasizes a perceived causal primacy in individual actors (nations) on the world stage. Agression on the part of a nation-state is understood as nothing more than an extension of national interests. This may seem relatively intuitive, but my point is not that countries do not act in their own interests, but that an agent-oriented theory fails to investigate the nature of these interests, and how they form in the context of a globalized economy. The danger of such an approach is that it inevtiably leads to a superficial reading of capitalist politics. Marx’s primary criticism of the bourgeois political economists was that they took the interactions and relationships they observed at face value, simply accepting them as part of a natural order. They drew their conclusions by viewing relations of exchange in isolation from a larger social context. As a result, they were unable to adequately describe the more subtle factors at play in the economy, especially when it came to production and its relation to exchange. Agent-oriented anti-imperialists make a similar mistake in their theories of international relations.

When viewed in isolation, the geopolitical is made up of individual states, constantly shifting loyalties and forming new alliances, maneuvering against each other to maximize their spheres of influence. If we left it at that, then it would seem that the cause of imperialism lies in the nation-state, not capitalism. In that case, the nations displaying the most signs of outward aggression are those responsible for imperialism. It is the fault of Russia and China and the US that there is so much warfare taking placing across the globe. This isn’t wrong, of course. The US by itself  has staged hundreds of military interventions over the past century, leading to countless deaths. But it must be understood that all governments in the world engage in actions that ensure the reproduction of capitalist relations, thus perpetuating the seemingly endless cycles of exploitation and oppression that contribute to the collective misery of humanity. This isn’t an attempt at whataboutism; I agree that the world’s superpowers should be held accountable for their relentless campaigns against peace and the general welfare, but they engage in such campaigns because they are cogs in capital’s killing machine. Particularly large cogs, no doubt, yet their actions are driven by the same general logic that all politcal and economic entities are beholden to. This logic, the set of rules that govern human relationships in their current form, is what must be abolished if  world peace is to become a possibility.

Back to “subimperialist”: attempts to place various nation-states within a hierarchy ranked on the basis of some qualitative measurement of which is “more” imperialist betrays a myopic understanding of capitalism’s role in international relations and leads down a dubious political path. If one starts at the assumption that such a hierarchy exists, instead of acknowledging that the nation state is an inherently bourgeois political form, then this can easily lead to a sort of lesser evilism, wherein one feels compelled to side with countries perceived as “non-imperialist” against the “imperialist” ones. This is certainly the case in the response of Western Stalinists to the situation in Syria, as they chose to voice support for Assad as a defender against Western imperialism. No doubt this same line of reasoning has lead to the development of the guilt complex that pervades much of the American left, which incessantly, compulsively obsesses over a perceived responsibility to broadcast the “correct” positions on happenings in the so-called Third World, although such positions are usually far from being correct from a communist perspective. These groups and individuals too often find themselves supporting bourgeois nationalism in the name of “sovereignty”, or independence from foreign interference.

It must be understood, however, that a certain kind of foreign interference is necessary for a society to be truly freed of imperialism. I speak, of course, of communism, the class-based movement that must necessarily interfere with the sovereignity of capitalist regimes, as the concept of communism is completely antithetical to all established forms of socioeconomic governance, regardless of nationality. Such a radical departure from the current order is a foreign notion to the mainstream political imaginary, and it is our task as communists to introduce a vision of anti-nationalist internationalism into contemporary discourse.


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