The grand imperial puppet show

by Sam Kriss

HIPPOLYTA:
This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
THESEUS:
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst
are no worse, if imagination amend them.
HIPPOLYTA:
It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.210-213

Imperialism, as comrade Mao Tse-tung famously pointed out, is a paper tiger. The phrase has now become so well-worn that it can be taken as a familiar piece of imagery, that we can forget to ask: why a tiger? Why paper? The term is a Chinese idiom of some pedigree, but Mao was always scrupulously careful in his use of metaphor (especially when dealing with Western journalists), never missing an opportunity to interrogate every possible meaning. He says: In appearance [US imperialism] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. The image emerges of something like Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm, the fear blazing in the beleaguered creature’s eyes as the damp winds wash its frame into sodden pulp. (Rousseau’s painting was initially titled Surprise!, with the implication that the tiger is about to pounce on an unsuspecting prey – but it’s equally possible to discern in the awkward position of the animal, its leg half-suspended over the foliage, the idea that it’s the tiger that’s been surprised, caught out among the suddenly inclement elements.) This image, with the unhappy predator crumbling under the triumphant might of the people, has a firm place in the Maoist repertoire, recalling directly his slogan that the East wind is stronger than the West wind. But all this is complicated immediately afterwards. History as a whole, Mao declares, the history of class society for thousands of years, has proved this point: the strong must give way to the weak. The tiger appears strong when in reality it is weak, but the winds and the rain that tear it to shreds are weaker still; it’s only in this weakness that they can gain their victory. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about paper tigers?

Paper animals are transient, vulnerable to the elements, powerless against time. They’re not built to last. Paper animals are decorative; they’re entertainment. A paper tiger takes on the form of something very powerful, but it’s a self-conscious ruse. However convincing the representation, nobody is really expected to be afraid of it, except the children. Mao continues: When we say US imperialism is a paper tiger, we are speaking in terms of strategy. Regarding it as a whole, we must despise it. But regarding each part, we must take it seriously. It has claws and fangs. Another reversal: the thing that projects a unified, total image of power is actually weak and vulnerable; the thing that should be correctly understood as weak and vulnerable in its abstract totality is actually very dangerous in its concrete particulars. Mao’s programme for the practical struggle against imperialism is to behave like a child at a puppet show, reacting to each swipe of the paper tiger’s claws as if it were real, while at the same time never forgetting that it’s all an illusion. It’s not enough to simply refute the lies of the imperialists; you have to defeat them on the level of their own simulation: knock out its teeth one by one, even though they’re only paper.

All this is by way of responding to the recent polemic on anti-imperialism and the left; in particular two essays by workers and scholars whose thought I greatly respect: No blood for oil? by Matthijs Krul, and On the urgent necessity of anti-imperialism by the sublunar entity known occasionally as Emma Quangel. The centre of the dispute, if I understand it correctly, is this: Krul argues that the slogan ‘no blood for oil’ represents a model of anti-imperialist thought that both understates imperialism’s scope and overrates its ability to succeed; Quangel responds by asserting that if the average protester does not understand wholly the conditions of the world petroleum market, they are still taking a correct stance against US Imperialism; that is: to condemn it. Krul cautions against an uncritical support for supposedly ‘anti-imperial’ states that precludes any actual appreciation for the political and social structures peculiar to the societies in question; Quangel maintains that the goal should be to try to hobble the greatest threat to building a better world.

It’s necessary to start with particulars. Quangel begins her intervention by stating that many of the youth coming into the anti-imperialist movement today seem genuinely confused about what imperialism is – what it smells like. What, then, does imperialism smell like? Burning oil wells, charred bodies, the sharpness of gunpowder and sweat – but as she points out, imperialism is not the same as imperial war. Imperialism is a global system existing primarily to perpetuate itself, stifling any germ of an alternate social order, and its primary vector is aid and development. Development money is used to integrate states into the general system of capitalist expropriation; recourse is usually only made to guns and bombs when these means are refused. Imperialism is an all-encompassing narrative, a puppet show being played against the backdrop of the entire world, and its smell is not the stench of war. Imperialism smells like roasting chestnuts, popcorn, fireworks, the sweet clinging night-time smell of entertainment.

Imperialism is seductive, in the full Baudrillardian sense of the term. In the nineteenth century, it operated along the principle of contest, propelled by the self-confidence of the newly dominant bourgeoisie, pitting its strength against the strength of others. In the twenty-first, imperialism operates within the other’s area of weakness, which is also its own. The precursor to any imperialist action, whether as development aid or military intervention, is always an initial rupture, a breach in the form of a humanitarian crisis. There are famines, or shortages, or a government crackdown on protests, or a civil war. When this occurs, imperialist powers do not proclaim their decision to act as a function of a world-spanning omnipotence. Instead, they plead their own powerlessness in the face of the catastrophe (as in Syria today) and their own vulnerability against the other, until the clamour for action reaches boiling point. Imperial adventures from Korea to Iraq have been launched in the form of desperate measures against a looming threat; it was not only necessary for Saddam Hussein’s government to have brought suffering and genocide against its own people, he was also required to have the capacity to launch chemical drone attacks against American cities. This is a dual weakness: it’s precisely on the terrain of the human catastrophe that imperialism is weakest, because imperialism is the mother of all catastrophes.

Recent years have seen the grim spectacle of avowed leftists and socialists aligning themselves with the grand catastrophe of global imperialism to ward off the lesser catastrophe that precedes it. The counter-slogan, adopted from current trends in feminism, is that my Marxism will be anti-imperialist or it will be bullshit. The necessity of such a position is made clear by the abject pronouncements of empire’s left-apologists, less sleek running-dogs than mangy senile old hounds loping in circles as they attempt to gain a lick at their own anuses – but it also raises the spectre of an anti-imperialism without communism. A prime example of this phenomenon is provided by a recent article by Atheling P Reginald Mavengira published by the Centre for Research on Globalisation, alleging that the Boko Haram insurgency is a CIA covert operation designed to neutralise the supposed Nigerian threat to American regional power. He writes that Nigeria is a country which has always been known for its resilience and ability to resolve its problems without outside interference […] Why is someone somewhere hell bent on engineering Nigerians to form the un-Nigerian habit of harbouring and perpetrating desperate, extreme and unforgiving actions against themselves? As any cursory reading of Nigerian history should demonstrate, this is bullshit. Africans are just as capable as Europeans of delivering death and horror on each other. Mavengira has the correct stance on US imperialism – to condemn it – but it’s a condemnation arising from spurious allegations and bourgeois nationalism (although, confusingly, Mavengira doesn’t appear to be Nigerian himself but is instead a Zimbabwean businessman living in South Africa). He approaches imperialism as a function of American geopolitical ambition ranged against African states; in fact imperialism is perfectly willing to tolerate a strong and stable Nigeria. Capital always needs new spaces in which to expand: Nigeria was listed among the ‘next 11’ emerging economies by Goldman Sachs, whose board of directors now includes a Nigerian banker, and the operation of capital investment (and the enclosure and dispossession that goes with it) within the country is likely to be far more damaging than any mythical CIA covert operation. However correct Mavengira’s stance on imperialism, his analysis of it is politically useless.

Both the left apologists for empire and these vulgar anti-imperialists commit the same error: they’re taken in by the puppet show, confusing paper tigers for real ones. In the subaltern nations there is chaos and confusion; imperialism is an orderly and rational system. The only difference lies in whether they stand with this order or against it. Against this it needs to be stressed that imperialists are, for the most part, idiots who don’t know what they’re doing. The CIA isn’t some hidden cabal out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, directing events with a malign precision; it’s a hive of myopic nerds that excels only at receiving government money, levelling Pakistani villages, and systematically fucking up. The global ruling class might have been able to ruthlessly profiteer from the current economic crisis, but they couldn’t predict or prevent it. It’s always been this way. In the nineteenth century a grand geopolitical game of chess was played between Britain and Russia over the Central Asian heartland: the British played admirably, protecting India from any encroachment to the north; the Russians had no idea the game was even taking place. There is no master plan or secret logic: imperialism is a catastrophe. Not an explosion of violence or the sudden onset of famine, but a single, sustained, rolling catastrophe, blind and stupid and propelled only by its own weakness, that has bounced around the world for five centuries, until it has eventually become the world.

How should Marxists respond when imperialism threatens a foreign state, plunging through the rupture of some local crisis to substitute its own, globally institutional crisis? Simply condemning it has not, so far, brought much success, and reading the impoverished language of some vulgar anti-imperialists might explain why. It’s been remarked that much Anglophone critical theory reads as if it had been translated from French; this stuff, with its clunky sloganeering and reliance on the imperative, sounds like an inelegant translation from Chinese. Defend the heroic resistance against US imperialism! Stand against NATO aggression! People must write these pronouncements, and some might even read them, but it’s unclear why. As Krul points out, making a show of support for one or another ‘side’ (be it the ‘anti-imperial’ state apparatus or some inconsequential socialist sect) offers little scope for actively disrupting imperialism. The task is to, in a sense, play along with the imperial game of pitting weakness against weakness. We must see where imperialism is weak and confront it there, confront it with our own weakness in the face of its cataclysm, and that weak spot is precisely those crimes and horrors used by imperialism to justify its actions. These are not the lesser of two evils: they are non-heterogeneous to the greater evil. In a world shaped and defined by the madness of imperialism, there is no human tragedy that does not follow in some manner from these conditions, nor any real distinction between the local catastrophes and the grand catastrophe: the latter is nothing more than the sum total of the former. Our world is like the Chaos described by Milton: Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise/ Of endless wars […] A universal hubbub wild/ Of stunning sounds and voices all confus’d. Every imperial intervention is a strike against itself. To admit to the global supremacy of imperialism is at the same time to show up its monumental idiocy and weakness. Any system that conquers the world becomes isomorphic with it: imperial capitalism is now not only reshaping political geography but altering the planet’s climate – it has become the wind and the rain, but it’s that wind and that rain that tears paper tigers apart.