A Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a public square in a small town in December 2010, sparking protests that brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and began a tidal wave of change both in the Middle East and farther afield. Add in the 2011 American withdrawal from Iraq and failed attempts to subdue Afghanistan and Iran , and the writing on the wall for empire is written boldly — in blood.
After a century of scheming in the Middle East and Central Asia by first Britain and then the US, the tables turned much faster than anyone could have imagined. As the pivotal 2011 draws to a close, it is the perfect moment to look at how we got here. The rollercoaster ride has been long and terrifying, and it is vital to understand where it is taking us.
From the 19th century on, it was clear to imperial strategists such as Cecil Rhodes and Halford MacKinder, motivated by the desire to conquer the world, that the “heartland”, Eurasia, was the key to securing the proposed world empire. WWI was supposed to clinch the deal, with the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate leaving the Levant “free” to be carved up and secured. The Indian Raj was the empire’s base for securing Central Asia and the Far East .
But the horrors of the war led to an unforeseen result: revolution in Russia, inspiring a growing anti-imperial movement across Eurasia. Inspired by Russian revolutionaries, the Raj seethed in discontent, demanding freedom from the British yoke, and Chinese patriots coalesced around their own rapidly growing Communist movement. Historic Turkestan was now off limits, part of the Soviet Union or in the case of Afghanistan, unconquerable.
WWII erupted as Germany attempted to snatch the world empire from the British and destroy its Russian nemesis, but this merely accelerated the decline of the Euro-imperialists, their schemes exposed as relying on mass slaughter and cold, calculating privilege for the elite of the imperial centre.
When the war ended, there were hopes that imperialism would end too. The empire had been forced to ally with the Communists to defeat the Germans, and to promise to dismantle the imperial system after WWII. This new world order was to be one of independent nations competing on a level playing field. But what should have been the last gasp of this inhuman system of “free trade” in the service of empire gained a new lease on life, as the US had escaped the 20th century’s cataclysms unscathed, and its capitalists were eager to take on the mantle of empire ceded by the bankrupt Brits.
Moreover, a new, subtle but key force in the new empire was the Jewish state established by the British and Americans in the heart of the Middle East, a blatant colonial entity which draped its imperial role in the language of anti-colonial liberation. This, despite the fact that it was created by dispossessing the native Arabs, even as neighbouring Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and North Africa were gaining nominal independence from their colonial masters.
This new playing field witnessed a long, bloody match, pitting the empire’s forces against both Communists and anti-colonial forces. After millions of deaths, it culminated in the defeat of the Communists in 1991, and a new game began, with world control once again the prize.
The dreams of revolution and an end to empire were dashed, and this new world order was once again baldly imperial, as planners accelerated their plans, epitomised by the rise of the neoconservatives with their Project for a New American Century, combining market fundamentalism and imperial aggression in a deadly cocktail where there were no longer any geographical limits.
The former Communist union, especially Turkestan, with its strategic location and oil wealth, was quickly brought into the imperial orbit. Even China was accommodated, as it acceded to the world economic order established by the empire after WWII.
But the baggage of empire continued to complicate the picture. The Islamists, so useful in the destruction of the Communist bloc, resisted imperial designs. Israel, also useful throughout the post-WWII struggle against both the Communists and the 3rd world liberation forces, established itself as an independent player and even posed as the new imperial coach, penetrating to the heart of the empire and asserting its own goals of expansion and hostility against its Muslim neighbours.
At its beheast, the resulting wars have been against the Arab and Muslim world, but two decades of attempts to subdue them have merely hardened Muslims’ opposition to empire, even as the devastation caused by imperial designs increases.
Hence, the Arab Spring of 2011 and the accession to power of Islamists via the ballot box across the Middle East . Hence, the unwinnable war against the Afghan people, that brought empire to its knees in fateful 2011, even as the slaughter of insurgents and civilians increased. Yes, the imperialists managed a clever ruse, invading Libya to depose the clownish Gaddafi, but the Islamists and fiercely independent tribes there are unlikely allies of empire.
The tsunami of resistance to imperialism surged throughout 2011 around the world, while the empire’s leaders put a worldwide “missile defence” system in place. But even as radars and missiles were installed in Europe, the rising tide reached the empire’s shores in 2011, as financial crisis led to rising poverty and unrest in the imperial centre itself.
Taking inspiration from the Arab Spring, mass demonstrations in Greece and Spain erupted and Wall Street, the empire’s “heartland”, was occupied. The “99 per cent” entered the political lexicon as the people vs the ruling elite (the 1 per cent who own half of the country’s assets). Even Israel and newly capitalist Russia witnessed mass demonstrations, as ordinary citizens began to realise how the system works, or rather doesn’t work for them. How increasing disparity of wealth is the logical result of market fundamentalism and control of the economy by financial capital.
2011 will go down in history as a year as fateful as 1917, when the blinkers fell away from the common people’s eyes in Russia and they rose up against their oppressors. But while 1917 witnessed a Communist revolution against capitalism and imperialism by a small corps of professional revolutionaries, 2011 has witnessed a mass, leaderless revolution facilitated by telecommunications, and in the case of the key Middle East, inspired by Islam.
There is no Lenin, not even a Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the one Arab leader who managed to slow down the imperial steamroller in the Middle East and is still revered for his defiance. Unlike Communist revolutionaries of yore, the new leaders in the Middle East of what must be called the Islamic revolution of 2011 are not the object of veneration, something that Islam as a religion warns against.
Revolutions always start in the weakest links. Thus, the Middle East has a head start on the revolutionary process over the West, though through the growing Palestinian solidarity movement, notably the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, the struggles of East and West are increasingly seen to be one and the same. What will be the decisive test for the new revolutionaries in the Middle East and the West itself is how well they can navigate the political shoals and landmines laid by a century of empire.
How to dismantle apartheid Israel without it unleashing nuclear war on the world? How to put an end to US world financial blackmail centred on the dollar without the US strategists taking everyone else down with them? While the empire is on the defensive, it is still powerful and as its star wanes, it will only become more lethal.
The foes of empire are popping up faster than the empire’s drones can knock them off. They are found not only in Arab (and Persian) lands, or even in a skeptical Russia and still-Communist China. As the links in the system continue to fray, they are increasingly in the heart of the empire itself. Americans and Europeans will continue to develop alternatives to empire, financially, economically and politically, in their own communities and continue to link up with their comrades-against-arms in the heart of the supposed enemy in Eurasia .
More and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to capitalism. Some 130 million Americans are part owners of co-op businesses and credit unions. As Obama cuts funding to states, the latter considers establishing their own banks and use public pensions to fund state economic development.
There is a wealth of expertise in the “heartland” of the empire that can help show the whole world the way out of the imperial dead end. The new generation in America lacks the Cold War paranoia about socialism: Americans under 30 years old are “essentially evenly divided” as to whether they preferred “capitalism” or “socialism”, according to a 2009 Rasmussen poll.
Even as the world environment degrades, even as imperial arms continue to kill, maim and choke demonstrators and insurgents both at the heart of the empire and in the heart of the “enemy”, we can take heart in the new sense of human dignity which 2011 spawned, and fight the intrigues of empire with new vigour in 2012.