Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 14, 2018

Commentary on Max Ajl’s “Notes on Libya”

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

A fan’s scrapbook

In a more than 6000 word article titled “Notes on Libya” in the February Viewpoint Magazine, Max Ajl makes the case for Gaddafi by drawing liberally from Horace Campbell’s 2013 “Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya” published by Monthly Review. This was the not first time he defended Gaddafi. The same year that Campbell’s book was published, Maxmilian Forte’s “Slouching Towards Sirte” came out, a book Ajl reviewed for the pro-Gaddafi MRZine. Although I have not read Campbell’s book, it seems that it was mostly about the calamity of NATO intervention rather than an encomium to the “Green Revolution”. Indeed, in 2010 Campbell wrote an article about Gaddafi being an obstacle to African unity, evidently something Ajl must have either missed reading or consciously sidestepped.

As for Forte, Ajl probably leaned more in his direction as far as evaluating Gaddafi’s Pan-African credentials:

Furthermore, Forte does a very good job of pulling together the reasons the United States never liked Qadhafi—his prickliness with respect to U.S. investment, his leadership in Africa, his support of the African National Congress, and his resolute hostility to AFRICOM and U.S. bases on African soil.

Of course, if this Cornell graduate student had taken the trouble to spend an hour or so researching Gaddafi’s attitude toward AFRICOM, he would have not written such nonsense—unless of course his only goal was writing propaganda. When General William Ward, the commander of AFRICOM, paid a visit to Libya in 2009, he saw no obstacles to cooperation between the U.S. and Libya:

[D]uring my last visit to Tripoli I had a very good meeting with the Leader. He and I were able to talk about my command; we were able to give him some thoughts on the United States Africa Command and what the command is about. And I think because of that, we gave him additional information that enabled him to have a better understanding of the command.

AFRICOM issued a press release that confirmed Ward’s impressions:

“They (AFRICOM officials) clarified everything,” Abdelgane [a Libyan air force General] said in an interview with AFN-Europe. “And they are making our mission easier … to rise up the level of understanding between the militaries … and to move for further cooperation to the benefit of both countries.”

In January 2009, Libya and the United States signed a defense cooperation memorandum of understanding, which provides the framework for a military-to-military relationship and cooperation on programs of mutual interest.

Even Wikileaks noticed the amity between the anti-imperialist leader and those who posed a mortal threat:

there was a possibility for cooperation with AFRICOM in combating terrorism in the Sahara and piracy. He said that he could deal with “the new America without reservation”, now that the United States was governed by “a new spirit of change.”

So what the heck was that “new spirit of change”? It was about the rapprochement between the Bush administration and Gaddafi that was symbolized in part by his weird obsession with Condoleeza Rice, whose photos he kept in an album that rebels found in his enclave after he was overthrown. On the occasion of her state visit to Libya, the NY Times reported:

After all, the Libyan leader had professed his “love” for the American secretary of state. “I support my darling black African woman,” Colonel Qaddafi told the network Al Jazeera last year. “I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders.”

He continued: “Yes, Leezza, Leezza, Leezza… I love her very much.”

“Combatting terrorism” created the same kind of bromance—at least on a temporary basis—as there is between Trump and Putin. The LA Times reported on September 4, 2005:

As it struggles to combat Islamic terrorist networks, the Bush administration has quietly built an intelligence alliance with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi [sic, a novel spelling if there ever was one], a onetime bitter enemy the U.S. had tried for years to isolate, topple or kill.

Kadafi has helped the U.S. pursue Al Qaeda’s network in North Africa by turning radicals over to neighboring pro-Western governments. He also has provided information to the CIA on Libyan nationals with alleged ties to international terrorists.

In turn, the U.S. has handed over to Tripoli some anti-Kadafi Libyans captured in its campaign against terrorism. And Kadafi’s agents have been allowed into the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba to interrogate Libyans being held there.

Now, of course, “fighting terrorism” is something near and dear to Ajl’s heart, just as it is to Max Blumenthal. Their obsession with jihadis is as extreme as Christopher Hitchens’s was in the early 2000s but legitimate in their eyes since it was Putin rather than Bush who was trying to “fight al-Qaeda”.

Much of his article refers to Islamic terrorists like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that tried to assassinate Gaddafi in 1996 and that was, in his words, “linked to Western intelligence”. Ajl wants you to believe that the MI6, which did pay $160,000 to the LIFG for a hit on Gaddafi, was in cahoots with the same outfit that would play a leading role in the 2011 uprising. However, that’s only if you don’t bother to investigate what happened down the road when jihadis became persona non grata after 9/11. In 2004 MI6 turned over an exiled LIFG leader, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, to Gaddafi’s torture dungeons. Mark Allen, the head of MI6’s counterterrorism unit, crowed, “This was the least [the UK] could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built in recent years”.

Like Stephen Gowans’s defense of the idea that socialism existed in Syria, Ajl relies on non-Marxists to lend credibility to the absurd idea of a socialist Libya albeit with a hedging strategy:

One of the leading scholars of Libya argues, “If socialism is defined as a redistribution of wealth and resources, a socialist revolution clearly occurred in Libya after 1969 and most especially in the second half of the 1970s.” Certainly such a redistribution must redistribute downwards if the word is to retain any meaning. Furthermore, we may object at limiting socialism to material distribution. Socialism can also more broadly refer to self-management, including participation in political institutions. In Libya, the character of state institutions was prohibitive of that participation – a structural defect which laid the grounds for Libya’s later deterioration.

The leading scholar referred to above is one Ronald Bruce St John, who whatever his credentials, and I am sure they are substantial, has little grasp of what a socialist revolution consists of given his assertion that “Socialism was a part of most 20th century revolutions, especially those in the Middle East”. Especially those in the Middle East? What could he possibly be speaking of? We also had African socialism, which involved “redistribution”. Under Julius Nyere, Tanzania put a ceiling on capitalist development in order to allow petty commodity production to prevail. Was that socialism? When the FLN took power in Algeria, it nationalized oil—just as Gaddafi would—and fostered worker self-management as well as “redistributing” oil wealth.

What Ajl misses is the real character of such states that can best be described as rentier in nature or what Gilbert Achcar calls patrimonial. In my review of his “The People Want” for CounterPunch, I describe a state of affairs that prevailed in nearly every state in the Middle East and North Africa:

The analysis in that chapter is at least for this reader the major theoretical contribution made by Gilbert Achcar. While Max Weber is a thinker who might be unfashionable in the academy nowadays, Achcar puts his concept of the patrimonial state to good use.  For Achcar, patrimonialism is an absolute, hereditary type of autocratic power that relies on an entourage built of “kith and kin” and which uses the state to protect its interests and those who it favors. Essentially, the term “crony capitalism” describes the power relationships that existed throughout the region despite the tendency of some rulers to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of national liberation and socialism.

For some on the left, there is a tendency to put the most positive spin on patrimonial states when they appear disposed to provide benefits of one sort or another to the population. While this is obviously not socialism, it is a petroleum-fueled welfare state that bears some resemblance to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution—or so it would seem.

However, oil revenue can be a double-edged sword. When a state’s treasury relies on oil revenues rather than taxes, such as is the case in Kuwait where tax revenues comprised less than 1 percent of GDP, the ruling clique is not bound by obligations to a largely non-existent tax-paying population.

Oil and gas production in MENA is an industry that generates ground-rent in terms understood by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. This simply means that unlike manufacturing, the means of production can largely do without labor. Wealth is being generated but not jobs. This goes a long way to explain the disproportionately large informal sector in MENA. If factory jobs are virtually non-existent, then the only recourse is to emigrate (the region is known for its massive export of labor) or becoming a street peddler. When a state that has grown indifferent to a non-taxpaying base and has nourished corruption and payoffs throughout the body politic, no wonder someone like Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit peddler, could have touched off the Arab revolts through his self-immolation after years of paying off the cops or being beaten and harassed by them.

Despite the occasional report about diversification in oil-producing nations, manufacturing remains stunted. Compared to Israel that lacks any sort of mineral wealth but enjoys a robust manufacturing base, the Arab states are extremely underdeveloped. Why is there so little commitment from the elites, even on a capitalist basis, to use oil revenue to remove the distortions that plague the local economies?

If you are a Marxist, as Ajl claims to be, that’s the starting point: class relations in a given national framework. Once, your unit of analysis becomes the nation-state rather than class, it is easy to lose your way.

His article is filled with references to many reputable scholars including Raymond Hinnebusch. However, none of them are recognized Marxist scholars. If anything, there is a dearth of Marxist scholarship on Libya. A search in New Left Review, Historical Materialism and Socialist Register turns up practically nothing.

I had hopes to write a series of articles about Libya that would be similar to those I have written about Syria but demands on my time have made that very difficult. If I were to find the time, much of my output would be based on a 2015 collection titled “The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath”, edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn.

It goes a long way to explaining the collapse of the Libyan revolution that is to some extent the outcome of NATO intervention, something I agree with Ajl and company on, but there’s a lot more to it. I recommend the NY Review of Books review of the book that this excerpt will help you to understand its value:

It was always unrealistic to expect Libyans to emerge overnight from four decades of whimsical dictatorship into a state of democratic institutions. Western powers provided the military support to oust the colonel, but myopically not the civilian support to put a workable administration in his place. When civilians tried to erect a modern state themselves, warlords from the different parts of Libya easily bypassed the elections that had been held and seized power in the name of whatever cause they hoped might attract support. Some militia leaders justify their recourse to arms as a battle against jihadi Islamists or the remnants of the Qaddafi regime. Others claim to defend whatever tribal, religious, or ethnic group might win them local constituencies. They have tried to revive traditional myths in order to cultivate fresh loyalties. In the process a once relatively homogeneous society has splintered into multiple bickering armed groups.

The irrepressible rise of Libya’s many contending forces is one of the enigmas of the 2011 revolution. When Libyans first revolted, they counted among their blessings that they had few of the cleavages of sect and ethnicity that divided other Arab states. Through intermarriage, relocation for work, and Qaddafi’s deliberate jumbling of ethnic groups, many Libyans had multiple associations spanning the country’s vast terrain.

Yet The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, a compilation edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, British analysts of Libya, is a timely acknowledgment that Libya’s chemistry is older than the laboratory Qaddafi fashioned. The book traces not only the colonel’s demise, as many others have done, but the appearance of a lesser-known new cast. Written almost entirely by foreign experts, some of whom know the different factions intimately, it is the most detailed account I have read of the old forces shaping new Libya. Chapter by chapter, it analyzes each of the “sub-national identities” jostling for influence, and the communal narratives their representatives use to promote their claims. They include Libya’s Islamists, the merchants of Misrata, the Arab Bedouin tribes concentrated in the Green Mountains of the east, the indigenous Imazighen (i.e., Berbers) in the west, and the two ethnic groups of Libya’s slice of the Sahara—the Tuareg and Tubu.

Libya in its current shape is a recent, fragile construct, originating in Italy’s invasion of 1911, exactly a century before the Arab Spring. It has been fracturing and reuniting ever since. Unable to overcome the Arab Bedouin tribes in the east, Italy’s first wave of colonizers sanctioned the creation of an autonomous Emirate of Cyrenaica. In 1929 Benito Mussolini tried again, and succeeded by imprisoning tens of thousands of Bedouins in concentration camps, where half of them died. After World War II, the British backed the revival of the Cyrenaican emirate replete with a king, Idris I. But the discovery of oil, whose fields and pipelines straddled boundaries, drew Libya’s disparate provinces into ever closer union. In 1951, Cyrenaica established a federation with the Fezzan region in the south, hitherto under French hegemony, and Tripolitania in the northwest, also under the British. King Idris added a green and a red band below and above his black flag with a white crescent. And in 1963, under King Idris, Libya abolished the federation and declared itself a single unified state.

For forty-two years, Qaddafi, who called himself Il Duce with overtones of Mussolini, suppressed these separate identities. But once he had fallen, vulnerable Libyans floundering for some means of protection turned to their closest kin. In Tripoli each district of the city assembled its armed wing. Islamists organized anti-vice squads, and the Imazighen established “rapid deployment forces” to support neighborhoods with high concentrations of Berbers. Libya’s new power brokers revived and inflamed ancient grievances to consolidate their hold.

1 Comment »

  1. An article by Clay Claiborne on Libya will appear in the Summer 2018 issue of New Politics.

    Comment by jschulman — June 15, 2018 @ 12:46 am


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