Evan Tucker

Imperialism vs. Totalitarianism

Here’s what it comes down to. What do you think is the bigger world threat? An imperial world in which people at the bottom of privilege continue to be controlled by people at privilege’s top, or a world of dictatorship in which millions are controlled by a small group of violent people whose object is ultimate control over your person.

Where you are on this issue dictates your place in the Israel/Palestine debate. You can say “I don’t want either,” but the chances you perceive both threats as absolutely equal are miniscule. The world is full of difficult choices, and ultimately we all have to make one.

The irony is that for all the attention Israel/Palestine gets, Israel/Palestine is nearly the least clear-cut example of this dichotomy. Israel is thought the ultimate colonialist power of our time when Jews were literally the most marginalized group by colonial powers for two thousand years, were thrown out of Israel by Rome, the most awesome colonial power that ever was, and only allowed their own country because their population was annihilated to an extent that makes Rome look like Switzerland.

Meanwhile Palestine had no chance for any totalitarian dictatorship until Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005 – a point when the worst sort of dictatorships were established in Iran and Iraq, it was still disputed by the many right wingers throughout the world that there was such a thing as a Palestinian people or if they were just southern Syrians or a collection of tribes having nothing to do with each other. Before 1967, what we now call Palestine was simply parts of Jordan and Egypt.

Furthermore, there is imperialism, and then there’s imperialism, and there’s totalitarianism, and then there is totalitarianism. One totalitarianism is kleptocracy, the elimination of active political enemies, mass surveillance, and practice of the art of fear to instill compliance. This is the majority of dictatorships, including in the Middle East. Then there is the totalitarian cult of murder, the dictatorships which depend on an absolute enemy whom they can kill, and once they eliminate this enemy, they require new enemies whom they can similarly eliminate, with every citizen terrified that they and loved ones are next. This is the dictatorship of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the Kim family, it is also the dictatorship of Saddam, Bashar al-Assad, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan,and Idi Amin. It must be noted that the vast majority of these mass murderers did so in the name of anti-colonialism. There were certainly traditional right-wing military regimes which killed with this devastating alacrity: Suharto in Indonesia, Mobuto Sese Seko in Congo, Ismail Enver Pasha of Turkey, but on the whole, this was more a revolutionary phenomenon than a reactionary one, and a point the left still has not come to terms with.

But there are also the mass imperial murders, done in the name of civilization but clearly as a cover for kleptocracy. But again, there is imperialism and then there is imperialism. There are the imperial powers like Britain and France which left at least a patina of functionality in their regions: infrastructure, sanitation, medicine, general rule of law. And then there are the imperial slaveholders who worked their conquered populace to death in order to maximize their profit margins. This is the imperialism of King Leopold of Belgium, responsible for somewhere between 2 and 10 million deaths in the Congo (population 20 million at his start). This is the imperialism of the vast majority of Spanish conquistadors – most of whom were far less ethical even than Christopher Columbus, this is the imperialism of 1930s Japan, determined to exercise their complete control over the former Chinese empire, and it is the imperialism of the Dutch West India company in Indonesia, who utilized murder as a means to maximize their profits.

And then there are the ambiguous cases. On the one hand, the British Empire is technically responsible for famines in India on the most massive scale, 2 or 3 million dying of starvation at a time. But on the other, it would seem that the death totals of their Indian famines were, if you can believe it, less deadly than when India ruled itself under the Mughal dynasty. And then there are the ambiguous dictatorships where you’re not really sure whether they are merely authoritarian governments instead of full-on totalitarian. An obvious example is the Islamic regime in Iran, which in the 1980s had instances of mass murder on the most colossal scale during the Iran-Iraq War: and yet today, no truly totalitarian regime could have a culture that thrives with near-freedom of expression as Iran’s does.

The world is not worth giving up on, but it is a far darker place than first world countries give it credit for being. There are colonialisms and dictatorships that we simply must tolerate as the price for living in the world, because either is better than a failed state at civil war where death can come from any direction, and quite often does.

So is Israel an imperial power, and is Palestine a totalitarian dictatorship? Well, both have elements of the two. There is no question that Israel exists on land once lived on by the ancestors of Palestinians, and whether they were cleared off of it by Israelis or by rich Arabs or both, they were absolutely cleared off of it and packed tightly into fallow places. There is equally no question that the Gaza run by a kleptocratic dictatorship that, even if it doesn’t mean to bring mass murder on their own people, mean to visit murder on the Israelis nothing short of genocide in the millions.

It gets still more complicated, because Palestine clearly has imperial ambitions, and Israel is clearly beginning to resemble a dictatorship. If there is a binational state, don’t kid yourself, Palestine would be as much an imperial occupier as Israel currently may be. If a binational state is run by the current West Bank leadership: a Fatah culture of kleptocracy, they would exploit Israel’s technical means while denying the same rights to Israelis that Israel currently denies to Palestinians. On the other hand, Israel is beginning to resemble a dictatorship, and cannot dislodge its’s leader who’s been in power since 2009, even though everybody’s wanted to for years, and even after he oversaw the biggest disaster in the history of the country, they still can’t do it.

So ultimately, it comes down to what you think the greater threat to the world’s well-being is. Personally, I’m very firmly on the side that totalitarianism is worse. There are legitimate arguments to take the other side, but imperialism does not cost as many lives as totalitarianism. The reason? So many of the very worst dictatorships were established in the name of anti-colonialism, and because of that, so many of them were excused by leftists who believed that ending colonialism was the most important of all goals. Many people point out how deeply unpopular imperialism is in the third world, and that’s absolutely true. But, believe it or not, there once were many natives who approved of it everywhere. The reason you don’t hear about them? Millons of them were killed, liquidated as a class, deemed enemies of the new states, collaborators with the imperial occupiers, and killed en masse with a speed and number and intention that imperialism, on the whole, did not equal quite as often, and when it did, was often little worse than the native rulers who came before and after them. Once you’re dead, you have little reason to take pride in whether you were killed by a native power or a foreign occupier. And it’s not like imperialism was ever less frequent in the East and South before the West got there.

But then we look toward the future, and we see just how quickly the supercorporations of tech have placed a stranglehold on the world economy. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are now as powerful as certain first world states. They will dictate the policy of entire countries, and the chances that their power will be checked is unlikely. Each of these companies has a chance to deregulate the world economy to the point that they work millions and millions to death in slave conditions. Companies have worked the planet into a global warming that could easily kill a billion people or more, and any chance refugees will be saved depends on the willingness of countries to welcome millions of immigrants wholesale from countries whose cheap labor we already depended on for our prosperity.

But then again, there is no predicting that the anti-imperial governments who follow will have any less blood on their hands. History would seem to show that extremely unlikely.

And still further, the very worst totalitarian regimes, the majority of Roman Emperors, Hitler’s Germany, Mobutu’s Congo, the Spanish conquistadores, are, basically, what we would call right wing regimes that combine the very worst of totalitarianism and imperialism, regimes so bloody that there is no true word for this kind of regime yet coined.

So yes, the future could very much prove anti-totalitarians extremely wrong in the way we prioritize history, and ultimately, it is a question of perception. However you interpret history and world events, and it is very fair to say that your interpretation can reliably predict your exact feelings on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #17. Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, but it will return.
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