the Disillusioned kid: Would Turkeys Vote For Christmas?
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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Would Turkeys Vote For Christmas?

An intriguing article by Rosemarie Jackowski appeared in my inbox via the Chagos Discussion List before Christmas, but I've only just gotten around to finishing off my response. In her piece, Jackowski makes the case for "reparations to be paid to every victim of U.S. foreign and domestic policy". She seems to be aware that this is a category containing more than just a handful of people noting, "The list of countries that have a legitimate claim against the U.S. is staggering...Mexico, Cuba, Vietnam, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, just to name a few." She also names Chagos as another entity - if not a country in the normal sense - with such a claim, although one would be mistaken for thinking, based on what she writes, that the island was "ethnically cleansed" by the Americans rather than the British. Given the extensive nature of the claims against the US she suggests, "Fair compensation would certainly deplete the national treasury for generations to come." In light of the massive cost such reparations would entail and their likely psychological impact, Jackowski opines,
Reparations could change everything. Many citizens think with their wallets. If every citizen had to think about having a huge increase in taxes to pay for past actions taken by the government, it could result in a demand for change in U.S. policies. A war tax would make war less likely. A reparations tax would make the exploitation of others around the globe less likely.
This is true enough in and of itself, but as a strategy for challenging imperialism it leaves a lot to be desired.

The idea that people don't mind wars which main, slaughter and disposess dark-skinned people as long as they don't have to pay for it is hardly a new one. Some sections of the anti-war movement have sought to emphasise the financial cost of the war in their campaigning. The problem with this is that it ignores the moral aspect. If you see the invasion of Iraq as part of some glorious moral crusade then you may well be prepared to accept some reduction in quality of life in order to achieve success in that mission. Progressives often claim that they are prepared to give up their gold-plated toilets and other consumerist luxuries in order to improve the lives of others. Why should we assume that others are not capable of making a similar sacrifice?

Those who focus their campaigning around the war on such issues seem to believe that the proles are incapable of achieving anything other than a purely economistic consciousness, if you'll excuse the Marxist turn. If we are serious about challenging imperialism we need to believe that they are capable of taking that step further. Recall that full-blown invasions like Iraq are the aberration not the norm. Western imperialism over the last fifty-years has primarily consisted of low-key interventions by proxy, which entail onlych a limited financial cost. If people are only capable of mobilising when their government's foreign policy hits them in the wallet then nine times out of ten when the US is killing somebody they're going to be able to do so without having to concern themselves with popular resistance.

Jackowski's proposal addresses some of these concerns by making the taxpayer responsible for every US attrocity, but she never gets around to explaining how we're going to go about introducing such a system. She points to groups already camapigning for compensation for the injustices done to them, such as Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, but notes the paucity of success which such an approach has acheived. The Chagossians have met with similar problems in their own efforts. Clearly this strategy is wholly insufficient even with regard to securing compensation for specific incidents of imperialism, let alone for imperialism in toto. The only other thing Jackowski has to offer is some vague sentiments about a "debate" as if talking will be enough to bring about the end she hopes for, which I fear is hopelessly naive.

To my mind, Jackowski's error is a common one amongst activists, perhaps even something I'm guilty of myself (I leave the judgement on that point to you my readers). She seems to have mistaken something which is a nice idea (we pay for the bad things we've done, realise how horrible we've been hitherto and stop being so beastfully nasty) for one which is practical. She appears to have forgotten that those in a position to introduce such a tax (the Senators and Congress people of the US) are the very same people who have driven US agression for so long and the very same people who stand to gain the most from it. Why would these people vote for a policy explicitly designed to undermine policies they not only support but helped to create? Sure, massive pressure might force them to do so, but I can't help feeling that that pressure could be more usefully applied to the problem itself: the US state-capitalist system.

Furthermore, Jacowski's entire strategy appears to based on a confused assesment of human nature. The idea that a "reparations tax" will be a disincentive to support wars of agression seems to be predicated on a belief that people are, at least on some level, economistic, driven by their own self-interest. The problem is that for anybody in the US to campaign for the introduction of reparations they would need to be going against that same self-interest. The conclusion I draw from this is that Jackowski considers people to be more than self-interested economic agents and capable of making decisions on the basis of moral reasoning (an assesment I agree with). This being the case, why should we limit ourselves to such a pesimistic strategy as the one she advocates? Why not attempt to engage with people's moral capacities?

There is no question that the strategies adopted hitherto by the anti-imperialist movements of the west clearly don't cut it. Rather than face up to this, the movement seems happy to let the armed resistance in Iraq fight for us. There is a real need for a debate about how we challenge US, British and other forms of imperialism. Jackowski deserves credit for contributing to that putative debate. It is unfortunate, however, that the strategy she proposes leaves so much to be desired.

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