Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Karl Popper, Marx, and the Assad regime's war on its people

At the moment I am reading Karl Popper. I wasn’t expecting much relevance to our current situation but Popper’s description of Marx’s view of the state seems to explain the dogmatic rejection of any possibility of Western intervention to end the killing of civilians in Syria.

Lets concede that any intervention by outsiders is fraught with danger. Not knowing the situation, outside interventionists may produce all manner of unintended consequences. But that is simply a reason for insisting a humanitarian intervention should have strictly limited aims. It should aim to end political violence but should be entirely neutral in its dealing with local actors and be content to accept whatever politics emerges in the space that the freedom from violence creates. The interventions that we have seen over the last few years have often diverged from that ideal and I would argue that the success of such interventions falls markedly the more such interventions have tried to go beyond limited aims.

When someone criticizes an intervention it can be from two points of view. First it can be argued that the intervention was implemented in a bad way. Looking at it in that way leads to an examination of what went wrong and how interventions in future could avoid such mistakes. The alternative is to oppose intervention on principle. This is to argue that all interventions will make the situation worse no matter what the circumstances. One result of the second view is that it makes any criticism of the way an intervention is implemented pointless. For example, every thing that went wrong with the Iraq invasion arose directly from the decision of George Bush to invade. Criticism of the competence of how Bush and his administration acted becomes irrelevant because according to this view a competent implementation could not have improved the situation. By framing it that way it has the effect deflecting all criticism of Bush’s policy in Iraq beyond the invasion decision itself.
So what has this got to do with Marx? Marx’s view of the state (Chapter 17 of Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies) was that it was determined by the underlying economic conditions. The state in a capitalist society is a superstructure, an expression of the underlying capitalist nature, and hence is a bourgeois state. For a revolutionary movement this is a convenient position. It is pointless to attempt to implement reforms by means of the existing state. Nothing can be achieved until capitalism is overthrown in a socialist revolution and only then when the underlying economic structure of society has become socialist will the state cease to be a bourgeois state.

The view, that the state on the international stage is inevitably an imperialist state pursuing the naked interests of its capitalist class, is a special case of the idea of a bourgeois state. At the core of Stop the war Coalition are members of Marxist organizations and it makes sense that they should hold this view. However, the view of the state as essentially bourgeois, that is imperialist, as soon as it starts to act beyond its borders extends to many who do not in any way consider themselves Marxist. Most who use the slogan No War For Oil take it for granted that, on the domestic front, democratic governments are subject to control of their citizens but slogan essentially implies that democratic accountability fails once the same state becomes an international actor.

Why do are many progressive people seem content to let the Assad regime continue to kill its own people? Why are those same progressives only spurred into action when Western States begin to consider halfhearted action to prevent this? The continuing influence of Marx’s ideas seems to me to be at least part of the explanation.

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