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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Cobb


At the time of this writing, Israel has been bombarding Gaza for over two weeks. The bombings follow a shocking attack from Hamas in which approximately 200 civilians were kidnapped and over 1,000 killed, in what many are calling the greatest security breach in Israel's history. As shocking as the attack is, Israel's response, as usual, has been absurdly disproportional, shutting off water and electricity for the approximately 2 million people living in Gaza, bombing first responders and Gazans attempting to flee the carnage, bombing numerous hospitals, mosques, and churches, and dropping white phosphorous, a chemical weapon whose use in populated areas is illegal under international law. Over 5,000 have been killed, half of them children. Public statements from Israeli authorities have been openly genocidal, comparing Palestinians to "animals" and "cockroaches." Meanwhile, France and Germany have outlawed pro-Palestinian protests, and MSNBC took Muslim anchors Mehdi Hassan and Ali Velshi off the air for expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments.

Israel's 75-year occupation of Palestine, which began a month after my dad was born, is often thought to be a response to the Holocaust. However, the Zionist project goes back further. When the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, colonialism was not yet a dirty word, and the project was openly described in those terms. After World War 2, the horrors of Auschwitz provided a compelling post-hoc justification for a project that had already been underway since the previous World War. The settlement of the region by Jews from Europe did not initially provoke much reaction from the Arab population living there. Jews had long been living there alongside them. However, as they bought up land, these new arrivals often evicted tenants and displaced them, leading to uprisings in 1930s. The founding of Israel in 1948 saw the Nakba, a massive ethnic cleansing from of Arab the land. Since then, entire Arab cities have been wiped from memory, replaced with Israeli settlements. Every attempt to fight back against this displacement is used as pretext for further aggression and land grabs.

This is settler colonialism, something we Americans should be well familiar with, as it is our own legacy as well. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny taught white Americans that they had a right and a duty to settle the land and wipe out the existing inhabitants. The land was seen as terra nullius or "nobody's land." Because the indigenous peoples of this land did not share European concepts of private property, and moreover because they were conceived as more animal than human, their land was seen as unoccupied and up for grabs. A similar process unfolded in places such as South Africa and Australia. The concept greatly influenced Hitler's concept of Lebensraum, in which he sought to purge the land to the east of Slavic and Jewish people to make way for German settlement. In some ways, fascism can be seen as the apotheosis of settler colonialism, with its combination of settlement and ethnic cleansing. Yet even the non-settler variety of colonialism, as seen in places like India or the 19th century scramble for Africa, exercises a kind of soft genocide in its suppression of traditional culture and local economies and reshaping them in the image of their colonizer.

Capitalism grew out of colonialism, and could not exist without it. Capitalism relies on creating hierarchies it can exploit. Most straightforward is the hierarchy between capitalist and worker. Similarly, there is the hierarchy between landlord and tenant. Yet there are also spatial hierarchies between core and periphery. The core-periphery distinction predates capitalism by millennia. It has been the basis of empire for the entire history of civilization. Upon conquering a territory, an empire could either install one of their own in power or establish a tributary system in which the territory would become a vassal state. Either way, the conquered territory would become a servant to their conquerors, their economy becoming dependent on their master. In fact, the core-periphery is not merely geographic: it exists within a given society in social hierarchies such as class, race, gender. The periphery may or may not have a particular economic value for the core to exploit. Sometimes they may simply be in the way, and will be excluded from resources. In its most extreme, this leads to genocide, aided by a scapegoating mechanism in which the peripheral identity is demonized, especially if they dare to fight back. We are seeing this currently in Gaza.

Marx's class schema differentiated between the industrial proletariat, who worked in factories and shops, and the lumpenproletariat, who lived at the edges of society as gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, and gang members. He saw the lumpen as reactionary, and only the proletariat were the engine of history. He similarly had low regard for the diminishing peasant class. It's a point of historic irony that two of the most famous Communist revolutions of the twentieth century - Russia and China - had a rather small industrial proletariat and a much larger peasant class. Mao Tse Tung set himself apart within the CCP by developing a theory that more strongly centered the peasant class, just as Huey Newton led the Black Panther Party in organizing the lumpenproletariat. Marx developed his theory at a time when organized labor was beginning to emerge, and he saw how workers collectively had the power to bring the machinery they worked to a halt. Yet the power of capital is not so localized. Even in his own time, the English textile factories were spinning cotton picked by slaves in the American South and selling it to India, where they had destroyed traditional textile craftwork. All these groups - the English proletariat, the American slaves, and the dispossessed Indians - belonged to the periphery in some way. Class distinctions exist, of course, but it is significant that these distinct groups are all classed according to the prerogatives of the ruling class. What is significant is not whether a single class is the true revolutionary class, but whether solidarity can be built across these lines and barriers. Marx placed such emphasis on class in part because he sought to unite the workers of the world across national boundaries. The bourgeoisie was already global, so the proletariat must follow suit. Yet in our increasingly globalized system, it's clear that this solidarity needs to extend to all different corners of the periphery.

Traditional empires would extend over a given geographic territory, and would often exist alongside other empires. The Roman Empire existed simultaneously with the Parthian Empire in Persia and the Han Dynasty in China. Similarly, in the modern age of colonization, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and British all had their own empires. They competed with one another to control a greater empire than the others. This competition was ultimately won by the British. So global was their reach that it was said that "The sun never sets on the British empire." Germany and Japan attempted in their own ways to build their empires, which came to a head in World War 2. Following the war, these empires began to collapse. Decolonial movements arose across the world as one country after another declared its independence.

In 1944, as the Second World War was drawing to a close, 44 nations gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to draw up a plan for a global economic system with a standardized monetary management system and rules for commercial relations between nations. Theoretically, this would create a stable international order in which none could overpower the others. In practice, it became the basis for a new kind of empire. The conference established two global financial institutions - the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank - which were to be used to stabilize economies as well as fund development. Yet these institutions were headquartered in the United States, which would enjoy power as the world's greatest creditor. "Development" would become the new vehicle of colonial power. These institutions would offer credit to undeveloped countries to build infrastructure. Yet that credit would end up going to outside contracting firms, ensuring that capital flowed out of the country just as quickly as it flowed in. As loans came due and these nations found themselves unable to pay them back, "structural adjustment" programs would be implemented, in which the nation's economy would be privatized and its resources sold off to private capital. If this didn't suffice, the CIA could be called in to arm and train reactionary opposition forces in staging a coup.

This was the basis of American empire. Yet the beneficiary here was not really America per se, or even just its ruling class, but the global capitalist class. Corporations traders in Britain, France, Germany, and Japan enjoyed the benefits of this empire as much as any American firm. When the CIA intervened in Iran to overthrow prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, it was a British oil company whose interests they were protecting. Through Bretton Woods, NATO, and other international institutions, America became not so much the supreme imperial leader so much as the head of a consortium of both state and corporate entities. Opposed to it was another empire aligned with the Soviet Union, including much of Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and others. These two empires were dubbed respectively the First and Second World, which competed with one another for influence over an unaligned Third World. The Second World was ostensibly aimed at global revolution which would overthrow capitalism. Yet in seeking to overthrow capitalism, they felt they had to beat capital at its own game through regimes of accumulation. This was achieved by a technocratic authoritarianism in which economies were planned from the top down and local economies restructured by force to serve national and international economies. Just as the enclosure movement had forced peasants oft their land to work in factories, so too did these regimes seek to proletarianize the peasantry by force, but with the promise that somehow, eventually, they would be free of their shackles by the abolition of class. In the meantime, they would have to submit to the directives of the party and trust in their plan for achieving Communism. The result was often imperialism by another name.

A new era was ushered in with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Francis Fukuyama declared an "end of history," with liberal democracy emerging triumphant as the only real option. A Pax Americana was finally achieved, with a global, interconnected economic system, to which nation-states would be mere handmaidens from here on out. Every nation in the world would enjoy the material benefits of McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks. A rising tide would lift all boats, and all would enjoy a new age of material prosperity and liberal democracy. The age of ideology was over, replaced by the pacifying comforts of the market. Until it wasn't.

The resistance had been building for a while. In 1994, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), otherwise known as the Zapatistas, took over the Mexican territory of Chiapas. Their takeover was timed to coincide with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a supreme exemplar of this neoliberal era, taking effect. Rather than seizing state power as the Bolsheviks had done, the Zapatistas simply created an autonomous zone, and sought to spread their revolution by inspiring others through mass media. Their communiques laid the groundwork for the alter-globalization movement, mislabeled "anti-globalization" by a mass media who couldn't grasp that they sought not isolationism but rather an alternative form of globalization to the neoliberal version being sold to them by international corporate power. This movement made global headlines with the famous "Battle of Seattle" in 1999. Other uprisings followed in places like Montreal and Washington, D.C. However, a dark cloud of repression grew over the movement following a very different attack on globalization on September 11, 2001. As Al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center with hijacked planes, a frenzy of jingoistic patriotism and intolerance swept the West in ways not dissimilar to what we are currently seeing in the wake of October 7. After one protester was shot dead by police in Genoa, the movement petered out.

Among the major intellectual figures of the alter-globalization movement were Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Their book Empire, published in 2000, posited that since the fall of the Soviet Union there had emerged a new global order to which nation-states themselves had become subordinate. They referred to this system as Empire - not the empire of any one nation, but of the global capitalist system itself. International corporations shared equal status with some of the most powerful nations of the world, and together they were able to set trade and foreign policy for other nations. Hardt and Negri described this Empire as having the form of a monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The monarchy is the leader of the system, currently the United States, whose power is rapidly waning as we speak. The aristocracy is the top national economies of the world such as the G8, the G12, etc., as well as the top international corporations. The democracy is the NGOs and international institutions such as the United Nations and International Criminal Court. Some see China overtaking the US at the helm of this system, though Hardt and Negri see the monarchical position itself as fading in importance relative to the aristocracy. Some claimed that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq disproved their theory, but they saw this as a coup attempt by the Bush regime to usurp power from the aristocracy and reassert US supremacy, an attempt doomed to fail. Time seems to have borne out this assessment, as the US has never been able to recover its internal prestige since then. A somewhat different coup attempt can be seen in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In both cases, Empire reasserts itself.

America's long dominance over the course of the last century has bred bitter resentment in many corners of the world. From Latin American countries with a long and bloody history of coups and destabilization at the hands of the CIA and US Marines to African countries whose economies were plundered by the IMF and World Bank, many are looking for a rival who can upstage the US. Following the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, the New Left largely sided with China. The Black Panther Party funded itself in part by selling copies of the Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, affectionately known as the "Little Red Book," which to this day remains the third best-selling book of all time, behind the Bible and the Quran. Mao presented a more populist version of Marxism-Leninism than Soviet Union, appealing to peasants and not only the industrial proletariat. He sought to synthesize insights from anarchism through an organizational method called "mass line" where the party sought input from the masses and translated their concerns through the lens of party ideology. A view known as Maoism-Third-Worldism developed by synthesizing Mao's Communist ideals with insights from dependency theory and world systems theory, emphasizing solidarity with the Third World and supporting what Samir Amin called "delinking," in which the Global South forms its own networks of trade and diplomacy independent of the hegemony of the Global North.

The problem with this view, as with most political ideologies, is that it treats nation-states as people. As discussed earlier, the core-periphery distinction is not merely geographic, but also exists between people. The cause of Third World solidarity often leads self-identified anti-imperialists to support brutal dictatorships because they position themselves against the imperial core of the Global North. There may be strategic reasons to critically support for some regime against a greater evil, but all too often such support is far from critical, often resorting to outright denialism of vicious atrocities. Oppressed and marginalized minorities within a given society become proxies for international conflict. People therefore end up siding with their oppressors in the name of fighting a greater oppressor.

This can be seen clearly in the case of China. China's status as a challenger to US hegemony gives them a great deal of clout with the Left. Their market reforms under Deng Xiaoping undermined much of the socialist core of Maoism, but their economic integration into the world economy and unprecedented rate of growth have only raised their profile as a viable alternative to the West. At the same time, this rise has come with a great deal of repression. The plight of the Tibetans is well-known, and while it is true that Tibet had what could be described as a feudal system, China’s actions as occupier in the region cannot be meaningfully distinguished from colonialism. Even more so in the region of Xinjiang, where some of the most advanced surveillance technology is tested on the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population, and those seen as too overtly Muslim or suspected of disloyalty are sent to "re-education camps." China's defenders will point to accusations about these and other issues as propaganda by Westerners who seek to undermine China, and it is certainly true that a great deal of propaganda is there, often spoiling the well by using human rights as a weapon to score points against the West's great rival. Yet even if we just listen to China's own spin on these issues, we hear rhetoric that would immediately raise suspicions if coming from the West. We can be certain of this because much of it is borrowed directly from the West. China's repression of the Uyghurs has largely been fought under the guise of a "People’s War on Terror" to crush Uyghur independence movements. Even if the claims of forced sterilization and mass rape prove to be mere propaganda, we can still look at China's rhetoric here and see a very familiar logic at play.

Perhaps that is why several Uyghurs have come forward to speak out against what is happening in Gaza, despite pressure from Western advocacy groups who back them to stay silent. While many Uyghurs have caved to such pressure, others have taken to the streets in solidarity with Palestinians, whose plight they recognize as one with their own. The organization "Free Uyghur Now," which describes itself as "a youth coalition advocating for the freedom and rights of Uyghurs and Turkic people in forced labor and internment camps," declared "From Occupied East Turkestan to Occupied Palestine, we reject all violent, unprecedented acts of oppressive regimes, the occupation of both lands, and the denial of basic human rights and religious freedoms." A solidarity statement from overseas Hongkongers and Tibetans drives this point home, reading "As our oppressors and colonizers borrow tactics from each other, we, as the oppressed and colonized, lend each other our understanding and solidarity. It is in this vein that we urge fellow Hongkongers and Tibetans to understand Palestinian suffering in its own context. "

This is real solidarity: it must cut across the lines of geopolitics to recognize that our common struggle is not the one the powers that be have laid out for us. We cannot simply pretend these lines don't exist, and in some struggles it is a cowardly cop-out to say, as some anarchists are prone to, "Neither this side nor the other." Sometimes we really must take a side in a given conflict. Standing in solidarity with the oppressed requires that we hold certain contradictions within us. It does not make us hypocrites to hold these contradictions, but it does if we deny them. We live in a world of nation-states and must navigate that reality even as we seek to transcend it. We can recognize certain nation-states as having a tentative role in a greater struggle, but we must not lose sight of the people themselves whose liberation is our ultimate aim.

We must strive for what Huey Newton called "revolutionary intercommunalism," He recognized that the international order had become an intercommunal order, in which national sovereignty had eroded to the point where there were only discrete communities subordinated to an imperial core. This was a situation he dubbed "reactionary intercommunalism," and it could only be solved by revolutionary intercommunism, in which communities solved material conditions through mutual cooperation. The Panthers continued to support countries such as China and North Vietnam, but with the recognition that they could easily be coopted into reactionary intercommunalism through their integration with Western markets. We must build a world order based on mutual aid and cooperation. Oppression occurs both within and across national borders. So too must our solidarity reach across all boundaries. Our aim for total liberation cannot respect the boundaries drawn by the Empire, but must extend across the world toward the creation of a Global Commonwealth.

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