Thursday, August 6, 2020

The problems with ‘hate the government, not the people’

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

There is a certain deceitful rhetorical tactic which our current administration – in particular Pompeo more so than Trump himself, some of the reliable cheerleaders in Congress like the Hawley-Cotton-Rubio triumvirate, and their cheerleaders on Fox News and other ‘conservative’ media (scare-quotes deliberate, I shall explain why soon) – deploys with regard to China. This tactic is to separate the Chinese people from the Chinese government. The idea is to set the ideal Chinese person on a pedestal, to invoke his virtue and his longsuffering and his yearning for freedom, and to agitate for his liberation from a government which oppresses him. The government, by contrast, keeps him in chains. Even if regime change is not explicitly mentioned, the implication is clear that the government is unworthy of the people and must be pressured and toppled.

What is instantly observable from this ‘hate the government, not the people’ rhetorical tactic is how utterly dependent on the logic of Jean-Jacques Rousseau it is. ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,’ as the old saw goes. The idea that there is this ideal essence of the people that can be divorced from any concrete grounding in history or in social relations, that is ‘completely distinct’ from any such groundings, and that must be liberated from the oppression foisted upon it by the government – of course this is pure Rousseau. The appeal to the ‘general will’ against a government, which of course conveniently cannot be expressed in any authentic way under that government, is also very much a part of this construction. The French Revolutionaries themselves used this Rousseauian logic as they attempted to overthrow other governments – particularly Austria’s – which were under the control of the ancien régime (note the use of the latter word in particular) in the War of the First Coalition. As the Encyclopædia Britannica succinctly put it: ‘the political situation in Revolutionary France impelled the new government to make war on neighbouring states’.

The problem is that ultimately, Rousseau was wrong. Man is not made free by destroying the social fabric from which he comes, and man is not, in any way resembling a law of human action, made free by the neverending attempts to further ‘rationalise’ the government under which he lives. Human beings live already embedded in real human communities, real social structures, real œconomies, and these exist under real governments. Some governments may indeed be unjust and in need of changing. But it is a breathtaking mendacity for a foreign government to topple another by appealing to a ‘general will’ that cannot be measured and is often times not even applicable.

Which makes this logic all the more dismaying when one sees it in the pages of, say, The American Conservative. It used to be the case that The American Conservative was not, as a matter of course, given to paroxysms of Faustian revolutionary sentiment or any particular love of Rousseau’s philosophy generally. Sadly that appears to have gone out the window now that the ‘general will’ can be weaponised successfully against the Yellow Peril. On the part of these conservatives who fancy themselves to be ‘ideas people’, this Rousseau-derived attempt to position our government as a spokesman for a ‘people’ which are not our own is a stunning display of unprincipled opportunism. A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the attempt to reposition the magazine for a post-Trump Trumpian politics – that is to say, for a nationalist-populist moment that will realign the power structures of the Republican Party. That great French contrarian of both left and right, Georges Sorel, would of course be brandishing his most poisonous pen, were he still alive to see it.

This is a shame. The insight is particularly salient right now, that the dynamics of culture, of spatial gæography and of international œconomics don’t necessarily change when governments do. The internal politics of nations are of secondary importance to and are supported by the distribution of natural blessings and the dispositions of the people that live among them. This used to be a conservative insight associated with statesmen like Metternich, Castlereagh, Chateaubriand, Pobedonostsev and Danilevskii. But now – particularly now that realism in the vein of Morgenthau, Mearsheimer, Walt, Bacevich and Kinzer is relegated largely to an academic position outside of respectable media – one sees it primarily on the left, and in particular in the world-systems thought promoted by Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunter Frank and Samîr ’Amîn.

To give an example: China has been through an Imperial government, a Republican government and a Communist government over the past 120 years, and all of them have generally had to face the same issues, including territorial and œconomic ones. The Belt and Road Initiative is very much an attempt to rebuild a part of the world-system’s œconomic infrastructure that prevailed in the Middle Ages, before the 1300s. Likewise, the obstacles that modern China faces regarding its gæopolitical position are largely the same obstacles that it faced when it was under the Qing Dynasty – with the noteworthy exception that modern Russia tends to be more Sinophile (thanks to the dogged efforts of statesmen and œconomists like Sergei Glaz’ev) than Tsarist Russia was. Worthy of mention also is that the Republican government currently based on Taiwan still, to this day, considers not only Tibet and Xinjiang to be the rightful territory of China, but also what is now the independent nation of Mongolia.

Thus, for one thing: even if you change the government, the people will still face many of the same problems, and their approaches to those problems are going to be guided by path-dependency and informed by past experience. There is absolutely no reason to believe that a democratic China would be better disposed towards, say, Japan, particularly when the democratisation of South Korea did not bring about the same results. For that reason as well, attempting to extrapolate what a democratic China would look like by appealing to Taiwan is an exercise in grim futility.

The other problem with ‘hate the government, not the people’, is the more direct observation – which appears to be obvious but needs to be stated over and over again because the thrust appears to be lost on most Americans – that when our government tries to hurt other governments, the people are the ones who suffer most.

Look at Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia the American military, as part of NATO, tried twice to position itself as a humanitarian force against an evil government that was ethnically cleansing the people. (Milosević has, of course, been posthumously exonerated of the war crimes his government was accused of by the ICTY, a fact which is hurriedly hushed up and covered over whenever the Yugoslav Wars are mentioned nowadays.) But the effects of this war were disastrous. What was left of one of the world’s most successful experiments in œconomic democracy was completely obliterated. Civilian infrastructure was destroyed, and standards of living plummeted: its HDI dropped from a rank of 34th in the world to ‘a disappearance from the charts’. Hundreds of thousands were internally displaced from their homes. Post-traumatic stress could be measured on a societal scale in the wake of the wars. NATO’s heinous bombing campaigns (including the use of depleted uranium) wreaked environmental devastation on the Balkan Peninsula.

Look at Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the American military tried to position itself between the innocent and martyrific ‘Afghan people’ – in particular Afghan women and girls – and ‘the Taliban’. And so we intervened to help ‘the people’ against ‘the government’. But were the people actually helped? According to a study by Brown University’s Watson Centre, ‘War effects include elevated rates of disease due to lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and reduced access to health care. Nearly every factor associated with premature death — poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, environmental degradation — is exacerbated by the current war.

Look at Iraq. The Bush Administration was going into Iraq in 2003 to remove an ‘evil’ government and expected to be ‘greeted as liberators’ by the people. We also went in expecting to find weapons of mass destruction which turned out to be non-existent. The results of that war were catastrophic for the people of Iraq. Over half a million civilians died. Human rights abuses were rampant, as with the torture at Abu Ghraib. American military units murdered and raped with practical impunity at Fallujah, and those who blew the whistle on it went to prison. The use of depleted uranium and other environmentally-destructive weapons has caused an explosion of cancer rates.

Look at Libya. NATO was going to remove the ‘evil’ Mu‘ammar al-Qaḏḏâfi (we came, we saw, he died) and support the virtuous rebels who would install a nice popular democracy there. Instead, the NATO intervention oversaw the genocide of Libya’s blacks (for a long time unmentionable) and the opening of slave markets. Atrocities are still occurring there, with thousands being killed, hundreds of thousands displaced. Most Libyans are actually mourning the revolution and nostalgic for al-Qaḏḏâfi.

Countless other examples abound, particularly when sanctions policies are factored in: Syria, Iran and Venezuela. In each of these cases, the rationale is one of supporting the ‘general will’ of the people in these nations and opposing an evil government – even if that government is one that the majority of the people in the nation support! But in each of these cases, the policies that our government takes, ostensibly against the governments of these countries, in fact hurt the people most. Sanctions on Syria hurt the Syrian people; sanctions on Iran hurt the Iranian people; sanctions on Venezuela hurt the Venezuelan people. Hurting the people is, in fact, the point of the sanctions. The American government would not foist sanctions on any nations in the midst of a global pandemic if hurting the people of those nations were not the point.

So when Pompeo (or hawks like Hawley, Cotton or Rubio in Congress; or new nationalist right blowhards like Carlson, Bloom, Boland, Dreher or Dougherty in the media) claims to be acting in the interests of the Chinese people by opposing the government, given both the ideological underpinnings and the factual track record of such a statement, the automatic suspicion of anyone with even an ounce of awareness of political reality needs to be to call ‘bullshit’. Because the real strategic aim of the American government is actually, as Kissinger Institute director Robert Daly has said, to prevent China from becoming a ‘peer competitor’ – and the form of the government doesn’t matter in that aim so much as the capacities of the people.

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