Imperialism and propaganda in the internet age
A critique of Myanmar protestors' demands for international sanctions.
In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson attributes to postmodernism “the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past.” We exist in a “perpetual present”; each day sees us bombarded with a host of new atrocities and scandals that were unforeseeable the previous day. As such, we are struck with an unshakeable sense of reaction. All action must be immediate, and self-reflection is a nuisance for no tragedy can be left unexposed. I would say that we haven’t forgotten history, we’ve forgotten its lessons. We can all recall the Gulf of Tonkin, the Nayirah Testimony and Iraq’s WMDs. But what was wrong here: was it the lie or the purpose of the lie? That is to say, would it have been right for the First Fleet to colonise Australia if the Aboriginal people were “savage” people?
Perhaps you think that’s a non-sequitur, but imperial conflict is inherently based on a lie; the lie that military intervention can, or will, liberate oppressed peoples. Many people appear to be less offended at the deaths of 1.5 million Iraqis than they are at the possibility the President of the United States might dare lie to them.
Last Sunday, a “March For Myanmar” rally was held at Town Hall. Many gathered to show solidarity with the Burmese fighting the military junta and condemn “violent crackdowns against unarmed civilians.” However, the rally also sought to “demonstrate a united front in a desperate call to action from the Australian Government.” An organiser with connections to NextGen Myanmar told one student that their first demand for the Federal Government was to “[a]pply targeted sanctions to military leaders of the coup and family members who are benefitting from the coup. This could include comprehensive economic sanctions and revoking visas of family members residing in Australia.” On the Parliament of Australia website, a petition calling for targeted sanctions has received 13,681 signatures.
Targeted sanctions are an illusion: sanctions against individuals and industry have proven repeatedly to have the same effect as sanctions against a government at large.
A 2019 report by the Centre for Economics and Policy found that US sanctions on Venezuela caused upwards of 40,000 deaths from 2017-2018, reducing the population to starvation and massively restricting access to medicines and healthcare. Venezuela’s sanctions were targeted against specific individuals and industries. The Guardian reported in 2013 that Iran had some 85,000 cancer patients who could not access chemo or radiotherapy. A further 23,000 Iranians stricken with HIV/AIDs had no access to drugs needed to save their lives. This is, again, on account of US sanctions. The UN and the US will claim that they build waivers into their sanctions regimes to ensure essential food and medicine can go through, but these waivers are cancelled out by restrictions on international payment systems and banking. Further, many life-saving medications are considered dual medical and military use, thus are not ever subject to the waiver. Sanctions inexorably kill. However, what sanctions don’t do is change the course of sovereign nations — unsurprisingly, a death sentence doesn’t tend to persuade many over to the sanctioner’s cause.
It is recklessly naive for sections of the Burmese diaspora to call for sanctions on the junta, which would only lead thousands of the Burmese working class’s deaths whilst the government would inevitably emerge unscathed. This is particularly concerning considering the rally received uncritical support from National Labour Students (NLS) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt), both before and after it transpired. It does, however, beg the question: as citizens of Australia, a state firmly situated in the imperial core, when we speak on these international injustices, do we operate as citizens of the world or as imperialist voices?
In Capitalism Realism, Mark Fisher notes that capitalism does not require a top down propaganda dissemination program; rather, as Slavoj Zizek argues, it requires the capitalist subject’s cynicism. The “overvaluing of belief” over action is such that so long as we believe so deeply that we oppose capitalism, it no longer matters what our actions are, no matter how supportive of capitalism they are. It is the ironic distance we take from capital constructions such as money that allows us to engage in them as if they are in a priori truth despite our knowledge that it is an abstraction. Perhaps the greatest failing in the modern left has been the proliferation of the belief that the individual capitalist subject has no power but for subordination.
Postmodernism and the internet have fragmented the world. As one might read from Gramsci or Chomsky, an elitist capitalist hegemony no longer can dictate societal narratives, nor do they need to. Once again, it comes down to the cynical capitalist subject; when the bourgeois and proletarian class are forced to interact in the same realm — that being social media — consent and propaganda now draws from the bottom up.
Francis Fukuyama has been widely mocked ever since he declared the “end of history,” but he wasn’t necessarily wrong. Certainly, he was correct to say that capitalism requires that it set the social conditions in which it is so ubiquitous that there are no conceivable alternatives. According to a Lowy Institute poll last year, only 23% of Australians trust the Chinese Government to act “responsibly” in the world. In a February Gallup poll, 45% of Americans believed China to be the United States’ greatest enemy, more than double that of 2020. The most significant agent in maintaining neoliberal hegemony is the working class. On social media, mention of states such as China, North Korea and Cuba as anything other than a genocidal, imperialist regime is met with complete condemnation. The lack of alternative views means that anything that could constitute a change is worse than our present condition and is impossible to praise amongst respectable company.
On Wednesday, Robert Aaron Long shot dead eight people in Atlanta, 6 of whom were Asian women. His Facebook is filled with anti-China ranting and conspiracy theories. Many will claim that the COVID-19 pandemic was what inflamed tensions towards Asians in Australia over the last year, but China was only blamed for this because of the neo-Yellow Peril panic that posits China and its citizens are a foreign threat set on destroying the West. Every day you can read a think piece somewhere about the inevitable war with China, China’s quest for world domination and the inhumane atrocities being committed by the Chinese. Alongside the belief that anyone tangentially connected to China is an uncritical supporter of the CPC’s constructed aims, this is the cause of the rise of sinophobia and the rise of hate crimes against Asians in the West. Imperialism requires that we know that no matter how bad Australia is, China is always worse. It justifies the hundreds of billions in military spending, it explains the hawkish foreign policy, and above all else, it upholds imperialism. Capitalism is a hammer, to it everything is a nail; any denouncement of foreign nations not aligned with the Australian Government will enter into the cultural conversation as cover for imperialism. We do not speak as independent international subjects, we speak as Australians. You need not support China, North Korea, Iran, whatever nation it may be but if war with, say, China started today, where would you stand? If it is against the war, then you should know that there is no Marxist critique of China from the imperial core.