Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why I Support Somali Pirates

APPARENTLY SOME PEOPLE FELT THAT I WENT TOO FAR in defending Somali pirates as representing a legitimate response to imperialism. After all, the pirates take hostages and threaten - though, statistically, it is the pirates who are most likely to be killed. And, as the Wired interview I linked to notes, it is not in the interest of pirates to actually kill their hostages. There have been very few fatalities. Nonetheless, it raises some serious questions about political ethics for progressives. Luckily, being a know-it-all, I have a response.
The first response of course is that there's always a double-standard in the moral outrage about "criminals" and "terrorists". Nobody credible in the mainstream media would suggest that the US president is a terrorist or a criminal. Yet, the United States, under the leadership of pretty much every president, has been responsible for hundreds of times more deaths than any terrorist organization that you might care to name. Bush alone must bear responsibility for the deaths of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clinton bombed Serbia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and, of course, Somalia. Obama looks set to send another 34,000 troops to Afghanistan - and at $1 million bucks each, you can bet they won't be playing pinochle. They'll be killing people wholesale.
And the US is more than happy to hold people hostage, including starving people, using secret prisons, keeping them in legal limbo in Guantanamo, and the use of extraordinary renditions. In Somalia right now the US is holding millions hostage, refusing to allow US food aid out of Kenyan warehouses because it might get into the hands of the Islamist al-Shabab movement that is winning the war against the heavily-subsidized and heavily armed - by the US - TFG government in Mogadishu. Even Foreign Policy Magazine has an article condemning the policy, concluding with the following:

The U.S. government is holding the Somalia relief enterprise and its beneficiaries hostage to its counterterrorism policy... Until Washington lets [aid] agencies fulfill their mission unhindered, the U.S. mission to win "hearts and minds" in Somalia, a feared up-and-coming stronghold of terrorism, will be completely undermined. Knowingly allowing millions of people to suffer is no way to win friends.
But there's a second point, that I think is even more important. It is this: that the application of abstract universal values is politically useless to understanding the world, to providing a just framework for action, and to maintaining a coherent, non-hypocritical value system.
Let me put this more concretely. Is it right to say that lying is wrong? Most people would say "yes, of course. Honesty is the best policy." etc. And yet nobody actually believes that. We lie everyday, often several times a day. We lie to our boss - "sorry, I'm late: traffic". We lie to our spouse: "no, you don't look fat in that." We lie to our friends. Because we understand that context is what determines our response. Similarly theft - do we condemn the theft of a loaf of bread by someone so poor that to do otherwise would be to starve? Certainly the British condemned the Irish during the Potato Famine. And what is theft? Is it theft for children in Indonesia to work 12-hour days, being paid sweatshop wages by major multinational garment corporations? Is it theft for the world's largest banks to have gambled wildly and then, having brought the system to near collapse, demand public money, refuse public control, and continue to give out bonuses?
And lastly, of course, killing. Surely we must be against killing. Its a commandment from God himself. There's laws against it. We condemn it. But we don't condemn all killing. We have war memorials to commemorate the occasions of mass slaughter that punctuate our history. We're told to "support our troops", which always means "shut up and support the killing of foreigners in a war somewhere else."
So, unless we are going to consistently tell the truth, never steal and never support any war or violent act, we must permit that sometimes those actions are acceptable. The question is when are they acceptable and this really comes down to "whose side are you on?" It also means a concrete analysis of each situation.
Let's take the pirates since this is where we started. Somalia's pirates are indubitably - even the mainstream media acknowledge this - a response to the lack of a central government to police the waters of the Somali basin, and the devastating poverty of that country. The action of seizing boats might seem extreme but since the pirates aren't recognized as a legitimate sovereign authority, they are forced to use coercion. If we're honest, all state transactions - including taxation and tariffs - are rooted in the threat of violence (whether physical or financial) against the subject. We have created laws to mediate this but behind the laws that threat remains - and as the Branch Davidians or various aboriginal protest movements (or the Black Panthers or the MOVE organization or the trade union movement) have often discovered, it's not that far buried. So, the pirates, without the benefit of legal recognition, are applying the threat.
There's also a question of power implied here. Somalia is a country that is suffering because of the continued meddling, manipulation, invasion, bombardment, etc etc of the USA, et al. The USA support the dictator Siad Barre. They invaded to prevent Mohammad Farah Aideed from consolidating his power. They supported the Ethiopian invasion which forced the Union of Islamic Courts out of power, after they had brought a modicum of stability to the country. And now they are arming and backing a group that has no support outside of a few neighbourhoods in Mogadishu.
The USA is the most powerful empire in world history. It has bases in more than 100 countries. Its military spending alone makes up more than half of the total world military spending. Its economy is the world's largest. It controls the key international economic institutions in the world, the IMF, the World Bank, etc. It has invaded more countries and overthrown more governments than any other country in history.
From these two facts - oppression and domination - I draw two conclusions. The first is that the actions of the oppressed to alleviate their conditions are not the same as those of the dominant powers. The actions of, say, the pirates has a democratic component to it - they are attempting to overcome the effects of imperialism and to affirm their right to self-determination and sovereignty. The actions of the United States are designed to strengthen and affirm the present set-up, in other words their dominance. Thus, their invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan, their support for the Ethiopian dictator (the Jordanian dictator, the Egyptian dictator, the Israeli apartheid regime, of China, etc), are about sustaining domination. They run directly counter to democracy and self-determination. And since I support democracy - in the broadest sense of the term, including in the economy - because I believe that it is necessary for the full development of humanity, I support weakening the forces of domination. So, anything that weakens the Americans, their allies and clients, or other imperial powers (including the Russian, Chinese, British, EU, Canada, etc.) at the very least creates more space for the potential of democratic development. There will be no women's liberation in Afghanistan as long as NATO and the Americans are there. Only once the occupying powers are driven out, will there be the possibility of democratic development.
This doesn't mean that I support all actions putatively directed against the American state or other imperial regimes. Terrorism for instance, while often an understandable response, is usually counter-productive. (and by terrorism I don't mean the usual "anything that opposes us using violence is terrorist" discourse). When al Qaeda blew up the Twin Towers, did that weaken or strengthen the US? It strengthened it. It provided a pretext to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and to increase the repressive powers of the US state through the Patriot Act, the open acceptance of torture as legitimate, etc. There is a question here of ends and means - ie. the ends don't justify the means, the ends are determined by the means. And that is why I support the pirates.
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