An Interview with Amerasia Journal

This interview was conducted via e-mail during the summer of 2007 by Russell Leong for Amerasia Journal, with assistance from Stephanie Santos (Amerasia Journal 33: 3; 2007)

Amerasia (AJ:): You have written much about institutions that act as enablers or pillars of empire. How do you see the role of minority immigrants and refugees, who are intimate subjects of the empire? For example, South Asians and Muslims in England, Turks in Germany, Africans and southeast Asians in Italy, and ethnic minorities in the United States. They are first-, second-, or third-generation citizens, who are both part of but also apart from empire. What potential roles can they play in forming alternative cultural and political voices within empire?

Ali (TA:): The narratives in this regard are multiple. No universalist response is possible. Immigrants and the countries to which they migrate are so different to each other. Take the United States for a start. This is a territory peopled by migrants from the seventeenth century onwards and which has depended on migrations ever since. Which is why Samuel Huntington’s Who are We? (Simon & Schuster, 2004) is so ridiculous and narrow in its approach. The war of civilizations is now situated in the U.S. and the protagonists are the WASP ruling elite and the Hispanic hordes from the South (each representing different factions within Christianity), who threaten the WASP monopoly of power. That this view is not confined to Huntington is obvious in the ferocious assaults on migrant rights and the fortressing of the U.S.-Mexican border. It won’t work.

In Western Europe the first wave of migrants were from the former colonies of the European powers, with the exception of Germany, which received a massive influx of “guest workers” from Turkey, an old ally. They were “guests” because they could be expelled anytime, a situation that was brilliant captured on film in Fassbinder’s 1970s classic Fear Eats the Soul. In Britain, the migrants were from the Caribbean Islands and South Asia, in France from the Maghreb. Without abandoning their identities, they integrated in different ways and on different levels. The South Asians, principally peasants and a sprinkling of workers, were not treated well by the trade unions. Despite this, some of the most memorable struggles for unionisation were led by South Asian migrant workers. The Indians in particular came from a highly politicised culture where Communism was strong and they brought this experience with them to Britain (like the New York taxi drivers!). The Pakistanis were less political and tended towards networking groups reflecting clan loyalties in their villages or cities of origin. The British governments encouraged religion by pleading for mullahs to arrive so that the migrants could be kept away from the racial currents in the working class during the 1960s and 1970s. Having encouraged the sowing of dragon’s teeth, they have no right to complain at the consequences.

More recently the New Labour government has encouraged single-faith schools, identity politics of the crudest sort and equated multiculturalism with religion.

In France, there was forced integration. Each citizen was taught that s/he had the same rights, something that was patently not the case. During the recent eruption of the banlieus, Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, like the ultras in Stendhal’s novels, talked of ‘savages.’ I have often pointed out to the discomfiture of even some leftists that the kids who rioted had integrated on the level of history. 1789, 1848, 1871, 1968. The young black kids did the same when oppression became unbearable. They built barricades. They attacked property.

AJ: In your keynote address at the Human Rights and Neoliberalism Conference last March at UCSB, you discussed the role of immigrants in forming a bridge from South to North, their potential to bring mass-based social movements from Latin America to the U.S. South and Southeast Asian immigrants, however, often represent a wider socioeconomic demographic. These range from working class immigrants who find themselves locked in low-paying jobs to wealthy immigrants who seek to advance a capitalist agenda. Given this range, can you envision a similar mass-based role for Asian immigrants?

TA: The establishment view is that Hispanic migration to the United States will be integrated into the functioning of US society and they may even be right, but there are some contradictions. The close contact between countries of origin and el Norte are obvious and the spread of Spanish in parts of the U.S. means that linguistic barriers are less harsh than fifty years ago. If South America as a whole becomes a continent of hope, then that will impact in the United States in a big way. In contrast, many South Asian migrants come from professional backgrounds. I don’t have the exact figures but in the medical profession alone there are tens of thousands of doctors from Pakistan, badly needed in their own country, but fleeing abroad because of the lack of institutional support. Politically most are conservative, some progressive. A senior heart surgeon who operated on Dick Cheney and helped save his life was a Pakistani, a loyal Republican who donated generously to the party coffers. One of the first post-9/11 decisions taken by Cheney was to fire him from his medical team. Disillusionment can come in surprising ways.

The Vietnamese and Korean migrations are of a different order altogether and a result of the wars fought by the U.S. in those countries. To expect any mass response here would be an extreme form of utopianism.

AJ: You have suggested the emergence of a Far Eastern bloc (China, Japan, and Korea) as a potential countervailing force to U.S. power. However, despite their own technological, cultural, and capitalist development, these three countries are still tied on many levels to the U.S. economy in terms of joint investment, gold reserves, and through their exports to the United States. So in what ways do you see such a bloc acting successfully as a countervailing force?

TA: I agree. There is no bloc as such, merely the possibility of one and Washington will move heaven and earth to prevent regional cohesion. The big question mark is China. How will the internal dynamic of capital impact on politics within and without. There are different views on this and despite my realism I cannot help feel that intercapitalist contradictions that were kept at bay during the Communist period will sooner or later come into their own. We are already witnessing regional wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) to assert U.S. hegemony.

The Chinese elite is at the moment obsessed with its own internal situation, but it is looking abroad as well. The interdependence with the United States will not last forever. All this is speculation, but what is fact is that the most dynamic capitalism exists not in North America or Europe but in the Far East.

AJ: These potentials for countervailing are also often undermined by neoliberal economic policies. Former colonies like India, the Philippines, and potentially Pakistan, for example, are primary sources for outsourcing by the West. This is seen as a positive development, not only by U.S. corporations, but also the former colonized subjects, such as college students in the Philippines who see “call center” jobs as well-paying and desirable. How does this rising trend towards outsourcing affect their potential to either abet or counter U.S. hegemony?

TA: In countries with permanent unemployment (India still has the highest ration of unemployed graduates in the world) one can’t blame students for taking any jobs that are on offer. It is not outsourcing that integrates these countries. The acceptance of outsourcing is part of the whole globalised project. The elites in India, Philippines, Pakistan have embraced the Washington Consensus wholeheartedly. Outsourcing is a large crumb they receive in return. The contrast with developments in Latin America could not be more pronounced. The social movements that erupted there have no equal in most of Asia. It is true that there have been wildcat strikes and peasant uprisings in China, but these have remained localised.

AJ: In addition to economics, media and global technology contribute—implicitly or explicitly—to the imposition of a Western imperialist agenda. Both Frantz Fanon and Ashis Nandy, and to an extent Edward Said, have explored how neocolonization policies establish a native elite that keeps the colonized agenda alive. The psychological formations imposed through education, culture, political ideology, and the imposition of social and cultural nomenclatures of feeling and action, are impressed deeply within the colonized subject. How can these complex colonizing strategies be effectively countered?

TA: Fanon was writing about a very concrete example—the French in Algeria. He stressed the psychological impact of colonisation. Edward Said was radicalised by the 1967 war in the Middle East and began to explore how Western culture perceived the East or the coloniser perceptions of the Other. Neither Fanon nor Said rejected the Enlightenment. Nandy is somewhat different. In turning to Gandhi/ Gandhism and nativism he fails to see how Gandhi himself could not have emerged without the Empire and a degree of collaboration with its institutions.

I am not sympathetic to that strain within the academy (of which C.A. Bayly’s recent books are one example) that flippantly rewrites history to both appease the forces of “political correctness” and, in effect, to underplay the impact and consequences of European imperial rule. Thus in The Birth of the Modern World we are actually told that the Industrial Revolution in the West barely existed and, in any case, had little to do with modernity. Or that the fall of the Safavid dynasty in Persia was more important than the French and American Revolutions. Or that imperialism had more to do with nationalism than economics. These are feel-good books written to make people in the South happy, but their effect is political disarmament. By downgrading the importance of western Europe, trying to cover up the causes of why capitalism was born here and, after establishing its superiority technologically as a result of the industrial revolutions, used the continent as a launching pad to take the world (the first globalisation if you like) they make the world inexplicable. There are multiple narratives in world history. This is true, but there is also a dominant narrative. The first and second globalisations are perfect examples. In the first instance, companies such as the British and Dutch East India companies went to trade and created armies to defend heir gains. Today there are US military bases in about 130 countries. The soldiers are not there to learn geography. Many defenders of globalisation as a radicalising force utilise radical language but end up backing reactionary policies. Negri, for one, ultra critical of Chavez, but an apologist for Lula.

AJ: How about literature as a countervailing force? In “Cracks in the Empire” (International Socialist Review) you talk about ‘Bush in Babylon” and the usage and expression of poetry by Arab poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, and others. Indeed, in the Middle East, as well as in China, Africa, and in Latin America, a strong tradition of poetry and politics exists that serves to embolden and empower people. As you stated: “In countries where politicians are by and large venal, and do not represent what people want, the poets have become the conscience of the world.”

TA: Literature is never a countervailing force in relation to power. It can be subversive, but on its own it is powerless. Yes, its true that poets and writers have often defended the interests of the poor and the oppressed and continue to do so, but it is only when the masses move that the elites lose their complacency (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador). Look at Palestine. It has produced wonderful poets (Mouin Besseisi, Mahmoud Darwish, Mourid Barghouti, to name but three), but Fatah/PLO the group to which they were linked has urinated on the hopes of the Palestinians by accepting U.S.-Israeli hegemony. Its leaders, onetime militants, are enjoying the fruits of corruption. The PLO is nothing more than a giant NGO, totally dependent on the West.

AJ: In today’s global crisis, can poetry, and literature for that matter, still serve an important role? What is, or should be the role of literature in a world of war and siege? What are its strengths and limitations from your viewpoint as a writer?

TA: Writers write, poets sing, filmmakers produce cinema. The radicals among them engage with the world and its brutalities, others talk of ‘art for art’s sake.’ If a person is engaged then this comes out in her or his work. The novels of the late Abderehman Munif are a good example. Beautiful literature and devastating critique of Saudi society at the same time. A good model for writers today who live in this violent world. Writers in the South and East who write to please the West become celebrities for a week or a few months. Their work will not last because in most cases they have lost their integrity.

AJ: You mentioned the United States specifically as a contradictory society, one with people are also “pissed off and alienated from their government.” You mentioned that their help was important towards furthering the sizable antiwar movement that emerged even prior to the invasion of Iraq. In practical strategies, what can these groups who are marginalized by race or by religion (Muslim) do to contribute to the antiwar movement?

TA: It is contradictory. The antiwar movement virtually disappeared from the scene, but the electorate voted in Democrats to isolate Bush and end the war. The fact that the Democrats have betrayed these hopes should not be held against those who voted for them. Marginalised groups should break out of their marginalisation by working with other for common goals. We should not forget that there are strong divisions within these groups. They are far from monolithic and we should never assume that their marginality automatically makes them progressive. The decline of Black politics in the United States (from Malcolm X to Barack Obama) illustrates this well.