The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 9, 2003

Challenging the paralysing impact of US hegemony
Sumail Singh Sidhu

War Against the Planet: The Fifth Afghan War, Imperialism and Other Assorted Fundamentalisms.

The American Scheme

Both by Vijay Prashad. Leftword, 2002. Pages: viii+110. Rs 75.
Three Essays, 2002. Pages: xxii+101. Rs 100, respectively.

THE principal merit of these books is their painstaking contextualisation of some of the dominant politico-strategic manoeuvres of our times. This contextualisation has a further merit — paying attention to detail and weaving a closely knit narrative of contemporary US foreign policy, its origin and structure. Also, why this war mongering has reached such frightening levels at this juncture, is answered by an analysis of the human condition within the US itself.

This unity of the seemingly politically correct public culture of the First World (US in this case) with various forms of imperialism (strategic control of the oil resources of the Arab world in this case) provides a structural lever to fathom the amnesia which has engulfed us. How the colossal tragedy of the Third World countries is shared by the marginalised social groups within the US itself is brought out in an engaging manner by Prashad. The neo-liberal economic regime, its attendant political right wing and the monopoly media serving the corporate world provide a perfect launch pad for the successful penetration of the US strategic design. In laying bare the grammar of this phenomena, these slender volumes make a rather humble effort: They inform. That this bare information manages to startle us is attributable perhaps to the dangerous times we inhabit.


Vijay Prashad follows Noam Chomsky, performing the task of a public intellectual. While this approach is necessarily circumscribed by the pressures of immediacy, still it valiantly pieces together an immense amount of material which makes for compelling reading. This endeavour implicitly raises significant methodological questions regarding the efficacy of post-structuralism, focussing on the episodic fragment and keeping the larger picture out of the analytical frame. Prashad’s attempt is to put this dimension into the arena of public discourse.

The American Scheme contains three longish essays producing an assessment of the contradictions of life in the US where poverty, racism, penal labour and sexism have brutalised its citizenry. A structural adjustment programme has withdrawn the welfare schemes to such an extent that any attempt to avail of this benefit invites the slander of criminality. This has put an enormous strain on the lower-end social groups, which tend to be consist overwhelmingly of coloured people. Coupled with this, petty crime invites heavy punishment, and jails become "the storehouse of the redundant working population as well as its soup kitchen".

Despite these developments, the highly consumerist way of life is rendered culturally desirable while simultaneously being an economic necessity to absorb the frequent overproduction — itself a characteristic of capitalism. War Against the Planet makes considerable sense in this scenario, when we realise that the present vilification of the Islamic culture is a direct result of these lands being oil-rich. Prashad traces the history of the systematic destruction of the communist organisations in West Asia. The centre-left Arab nationalism was severely compromised due to its internal ambiguities as well as by its succumbing to sustained coercion by the US through its secret agencies and by taking recourse to cultural practices (in justifying barbaric regimes citing cultural particularities of the Arabs).

This promotion of Islamic fundamentalism paid rich dividends when youth were asked to contribute towards the jehad in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Thus Afghan Arabs came into being. However, the Gulf War and the US refusal to leave the Arab lands have led to the present juncture where the USA is the main target of their ire. Prashad also senses that popular support for these groups is also due to the lack of public investment of the petro-dollars. These radicals represent an — albeit distorted — alternative to the US-supported despots. He is also aware that terrorism is only a distortion of the derailed democratic process in those countries and cannot take on the might of the unipolar world order.

The choices indeed are very stark and very few. Non-violent mass movements are the only way out, according to him. In the US, however, a silver lining is the resurgence of the labour movement, which is shunning its pro-corporate moorings. Hence, providing the essential armature for diverse struggles, e.g. against sweat-shop labour by the students, against the penal labour, against the taking back of welfare proposals. Particularly moving is the account of the New York Taxi-Workers’ struggle, which is a model of stitching together diverse ethnicities, nationalities, religious traditions for a common purpose.

These books help in charging up the public sphere debates by providing information and also for challenging the establishment agenda in academic and political arena. This is a contribution which challenges the paralysing impact of the US hegemony.