Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: The Liberal Defence of Murder

[Richard Seymour. The Liberal Defence of Murder. London: Verso, originally published 2008 and updated paperback published 2012.]

As I think was true of a fair number of young middle-class white men politicized as university students in the mid 1990s, one genre of radical material that I read quite a bit of at the time was (mostly US-centric) analysis of foreign policy and empire that had a focus on dissecting the hypocrisy of liberals. With the post-Cold War resurgence of liberal imperialism in full effect, it was a ripe moment for such work, and it was a sort of analysis that was legible to and resonated with newly-politicized me. Analysis of that sort becomes pretty predictable after awhile, however, and it provides a considerably narrower basis for thinking about how to act in the world than I initially appreciated, so while it is certainly common in the lefty media in more abbreviated form, I haven't really read many books of that sort in quite some time. That said, I think it's an important sort of analysis, and it still feels very familiar. The Liberal Defence of Murder is firmly within this tradition, but adds to it in important ways.

Seymour is a prolific and talented writer who comes out of the English radical left. This is the first of his books that I've read, but I've been an occasional reader of his blog for years. The presenting problem he takes up in this book is the role played by liberals and by people currently or formerly identified with the left in abetting and promoting the various wars and imperial excesses of the George W. Bush years. In the course of his history of liberal and left imperialism, he covers some ground that is familiar to me from my Clinton-era reading, but the synthesis of more recent material that I have mostly encountered via in-the-moment articles was pretty useful. More useful, though, were two elements that were new to me: The first was that he dealt not only with US examples, but also with content from the UK and (in a somewhat less exhaustive way) Western Europe. And I was fascinated by his longer-ago history of liberal and left complicity in empire, from the various positions taken by founding figures in liberalism, on up through various strands of the European left. With isolated exceptions, liberalism has always been saturated with empire -- as he so pithily puts it, "Liberalism was born one of a conjoined quintuplet, linking capitalism, European colonialism, slavery and 'race' ideology." And far, far less of the left has been consistently and in principled ways anti-imperial and anti-colonial than I would've guessed and would've hoped -- certainly more consistently than liberalism, but still far too little. Seymour argues -- effectively, I think -- that this is a product of the (socially produced) white supremacist and colonial mindset that has been endemic in Europe and EuroAmerica for centuries, and that continues to be a pervasive obstacle to anything resembling genuine, widespread anti-imperial and anti-colonial solidarity today. This unflinching documentation of left complicity was the most important part of the book for me.

The book has its down sides, of course. For instance, I think he spends rather more space than necessary disproving the glib assertion that pops up now and again that the US neocons are all former Trotskysts. This undue attention paid to a fairly trivial point is perhaps related to the fact that Seymour himself comes out of the Trot tradition (though to his credit, he was one of the crew that left the Socialist Workers Party after its recent appalling handling of an instance of sexual assault). The book also gets a bit repetitive after awhile. Of course, it continues to be important to have it all documented exhaustively, but the shape of the contemporary liberal and pseudo-left defence of empire gets to be pretty predictable, as do the options for a robust left takedown of that defence.

In any case, I would recommend this book for people early in their own process of developing an analysis of the roles that liberals play in justifying and carrying out Western domination of the globe, and for those who think that learning from the history of liberal and left complicity might be useful to developing future left politics that are resolutely against empire, war, and colonization.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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