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The US empire and the complicity of intellectuals

by Boaventura de Sousa Santos Tuesday, May. 23, 2023 at 3:51 AM

Interventions have always been dictated by the geopolitical and economic interests of the country. In fact, the United States is no exception to this rule. On the contrary, every empire acts in this way (see, for example, the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Adolf Hitler).

The US empire and the complicity of intellectuals

by Boaventura de Sousa Santos

[This article posted on 4/9/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, Das US-Imperium und die Komplizenschaft der Intellektuellen.]

Imperial states like the United States act brutally all the time. With well-meaning intentions, wars are sold. The silence of the "intellectual elite" on this is nothing but complicity with the warmongers. (Part 2, conclusion)

Today we are witnessing a confrontation between American, Russian and Chinese imperialism. There is also the morbid pretension of the United Kingdom which, despite its abysmal social and political decline, has not yet realized that the British Empire has long since come to an end.

I am against all imperialism, and I admit that Russian or Chinese imperialism may prove to be the more dangerous in the future, but there is no doubt in my mind that U.S. imperialism, with its military and financial superiority, is currently the most dangerous of all.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

Of course, superiority is not enough to guarantee its longevity. Indeed, with reference to North American institutions (such as the National Intelligence Council), I have argued that it is an empire in decline, but it may be that its very decline is one of the factors that help explain why the United States is particularly dangerous at present.

I have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine from the beginning, but since then I have also pointed out that the U.S. has actively drawn Moscow into this conflict in order to weaken Russia and contain China. The momentum of U.S. imperialism seems unstoppable, fueled by the perpetual belief that the destruction one sets in motion, promotes, or provokes will occur far from one's own borders because the country is protected by two great oceans.

The U.S. claims that its interventions are invariably for the good of democracy, but in reality they end up leaving a trail of destruction, bringing about dictatorships or chaos. The most recent and probably most extreme manifestation of this ideology can be found in the book by neoconservative Robert Kagan (Victoria Nuland's husband) entitled "The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941."

The central idea of the book is that the U.S. - in its efforts to bring welfare, freedom and prosperity to other nations, and to fight corruption and tyranny wherever they exist - is a unique country. The U.S., he said, is so immensely powerful that it could have prevented World War II if timely military and financial intervention had been made to force Germany, Italy, Japan, France, and Britain to join the U.S.-led New World Order.

Any U.S. intervention overseas, he said, had been driven by altruistic motives, for the benefit of the people who lived there. According to Kagan, U.S. military intervention beyond its own continent - since the Spanish-American War of 1898 (which was waged with the goal of dominating Cuba that remains valid today) and the Philippine-American War of 1899 to 1902 (which was waged to prevent self-rule for the Philippines, resulting in more than 200,000 Filipino deaths) - has always been animated by altruistic goals and a desire to help people.

Added to this hypocrisy and the erasure of inconvenient truths in interventions is the tragic fate of indigenous peoples and black populations in the United States, who, when people were supposedly liberated by military interventions abroad, were cruelly discriminated against and exterminated. The historical record exposes the cruelty of mendacity.

Interventions have always been dictated by the geopolitical and economic interests of the country. In fact, the United States is no exception to this rule. On the contrary, every empire acts in this way (see, for example, the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Adolf Hitler).

History also shows that imperial interests have often led to the suppression of aspirations for self-determination, freedom as well as democracy, and the support of murderous dictators, resulting in devastation and death.

A long list of crimes about which silence is kept

The list of examples is long:

From the Banana War in Nicaragua (1912), to the perpetuation of Cuban dictator Fulgêncio Batista and the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, to the coup against former Chilean President Salvador Allende (1973);

from the coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, former democratically elected president of Iran (1953), to the coup against Jacobo Árbenz, former democratically elected president of Guatemala (1954);

from the invasion of Vietnam, ostensibly to respond to a communist threat (1965), to the invasion of Afghanistan (2001), presumably an act of defense against terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers in New York (none of whom were from Afghanistan), and this after twenty years of American support for the mujahideen against the Soviet-backed communist government in Kabul;

from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and destroy his (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, to the intervention in Syria to defend rebels who were (and are) largely radical Islamists;

and from the 1995 intervention in the Balkans, carried out by NATO without United Nations authorization, to the 2011 destruction of Libya.

There were always "well-meaning reasons" for such interventions, which relied on accomplices and allies at the local level.

What will be left of the martyrs in Ukraine when the war ends (because all wars end eventually)? What will be the situation in the other European countries, especially Germany and France, which are still dominated by the false idea that the Marshall Plan was an expression of self-sacrificing philanthropy on the part of the United States, to which they owe endless gratitude and unconditional solidarity?

And what about Russia? What will be a final balance sheet, apart from the death and destruction that every war brings?

Why is there not a strong movement emerging in Europe for a just and lasting peace? Could it be that, despite the fact that the war is being waged in Europe, Europeans are waiting for an anti-war movement to emerge in the U.S. that they can join with a clear conscience without running the risk of being seen as Putin's friends or even as communists?

Why so much silence on all this?

Perhaps the most incomprehensible silence is that of intellectuals. It is incomprehensible because intellectuals often claim to be more perceptive than ordinary mortals.

History has taught us that in the times immediately preceding the outbreak of wars, all politicians speak out against war, while their actions help to cause it. Silence is nothing but complicity with the warmongers.

Unlike at the beginning of the 20th century, today there are no well-known intellectuals making loud declarations for peace, "independence of mind" and democracy. When the First World War broke out, three imperialisms existed side by side: Russian, English and Prussian imperialism. Nobody doubted that Prussian imperialism was the most aggressive of the three.

Surprisingly, there were no significant German intellectuals speaking out against the war at that time. The case of Thomas Mann is interesting. In November 1914, he published an article in the Neue Rundschau entitled "Thoughts in War," in which he defended the war as an act of "culture" (i.e., Germany, he clarified) against civilization.

In his view, culture was the "sublimation of the demonic" and stood above morality, reason, and science. Thomas Mann concluded by saying, "The law is the friend of the weak, would like to flatten the world, but war makes the force appear."

Mann considered culture and militarism as brothers. In the years 1918 to 1920, he published "Reflections of an Unpolitical Man," a book in which he defended the policies of the Kaiser and claimed that democracy was an anti-German idea.

Fortunately for mankind, Thomas Mann later changed his mind and became one of the harshest critics of National Socialism. In contrast, the voices of Russian intellectuals - from Peter Kropotkin to Leo Tolstoy, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Maxim Gorky, who opposed Russian imperialism - were always heard.

There are many questions that intellectuals are obliged to answer. Why have they remained silent? Do intellectuals still exist, or have they become weak shadows of what they once stood for?

The article is published in cooperation with the Globetrotter media platform. The first part of the analysis was recently published on Telepolis.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. His most recent book is Decolonizing the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice.

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