So I’m writing this against the context of RancidSassy’s brilliantly done post on the use of ‘agency’ in completely non-left fashion (if you haven’t read his piece yet, stop and do so now, seriously it’s great). And up front, I may be re-treading stuff he’s already said, I just wanted to get a reaction piece up while I was thinking about it.
I think Sassy has done a great job identifying how this block of people we call the Celeb Left use agency in such a way as to be closer to what we’d expect from the people on the right:
An example of right-wing playing up of agency is when my Fox-watching dad complains, for instance, that black people “know better” and slavery and Jim Crow and the drug war “aren’t an excuse.” It’s The Liberals who are actually racist (by denying agency), not those who think “criminals” (stealing and dealing for sustenance, sabotage against class enemies, expressions of righteous anger are included) are “responsible for their own acts.” In this flavor — the kind most modestly educated people would recognize — this usage loses its humanist luster.
He also nails exactly why this is a problem:
Playing up agency while ignoring structure is associated with the political right. That’s why it’s been surprising to see this tendency among left-identifying figures.
I’ve ranted at length here, and in the past on twitter, about the ignorance (deliberate or otherwise) of structure by liberals/neoliberals/etc. What strikes me though, in reading Sassy’s post, is how this is not just ignoring existing structures (patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc – structural problems), but an ahistorical erasure of the very mechanisms that built those structures in the first place.
This particular block of Celeb Lefts seems absolutely dead-set on ignoring how we got here in the first place in their dismissal of the possibility of empire being involved in causing whatever situation that they are championing (be it Syria, Ukraine, or wherever). At best we get an implication of “that was then, this is now” from some of them – as if the U.S. has somehow moved beyond its past. Or we get them trumpeting ‘blowback’ theory, again quoting Sassy:
All this “agency” talk leads very cynically into the quaint notion of “blowback.” The idea that “terrorism” exists solely because the US has predictably provoked it, that it has poked at masses of drooling animals and they have responded the only way they know how: extreme, senseless violence and oppression. This ignores that these “savages” nonetheless form focused militancies with specific goals. Yes, the US did “help” create the Islamic State but not in the “oops” way — it literally armed and financed either itself or through proxies organized groups of killers who have acted in ways probably not specifically predicted by the empire but whose actions will certainly benefit it in some way or another once it’s figured out how to profit from them.
The concept of blowback, again, ignores structure; it implies that it’s specific actions, whether short-term or long-term, that result in things like the Islamic State. Often this is coupled by the laughable idea that the Empire is a blundering bumblefuck, stumbling around the world like a drunken fratboy. In this view of the U.S. it is political gaffes, not structures, that lead to things like the Islamic State. In this view of the world, the U.S. is not in fact a coordinated empire fucking over various countries/populations for its own benefit, but an infant learning how to walk and getting bitten when it steps on the dog’s tail.
To quote Sassy again:
The US military and CIA are responsible for millions of casualties, the installation of dictatorships, and the gutting of totally agency-born democratic revolutionary processes throughout this period in one-third of the countries of the planet. That’s not a theory.
The U.S. empire did not simply appear, apropos of nothing. We are not the world power we are through simply stumbling our way through history, making mistakes and occasionally being subverted to bad ends by bad apples doing bad shit. We are structured towards empire. It’s not even that I’m suggesting we are monolithic – I think it’s much more likely that we are a multipolar mass of competing power structures (the various intelligence agencies, branches of government, military, corporations, etc). But the unifying theme for all of these poles is that they are deliberately building structures that move the U.S. (and thus their own) power forward.
Despite the ahistorical bumblefuck theory of empire that the Celeb Left seems to be pushing, where each crisis that arises can be dealt with individually and where hegemony can sometimes be used for good purposes, the reality of U.S. empire is that down to its core it is structured to benefit those in power, and in every and any situation it will do so.
Bad apples, blowback – whatever you want to call it – these are justifications of, and minimize, the true purpose of empire. This is not the Marvel Comics view of the U.S., where evil Hydra has infiltrated and subverted the good superheros of SHIELD for the purposes of world domination.
We are, in fact, Hydra. We always have been.