Richard Seymour was born (c 1977) among Protestants in Northern Ireland, but he left the six counties to escape the 'peace process', and has lived in London since 1996. Like most of his compatriots, he suffers from 'irritating vowel syndrome'. His writing has appeared in The Guardian and the New Statesman, and on the lavatory wall in Leicester Square.
Mark Thwaite: When and why did you first start blogging Richard?
Richard Seymour: I had been active on various message boards, arguing the case against the Iraq war. And just as one might gaze adoringly at some ordure just dropped in the pan and think "that is too beautiful to flush", so I wished some of my comments and put-downs would have a permanent status somewhere on the internet. It was essentially intended to be a salon of scat, but somehow that noble purpose was lost on the way.
MT: How long was it before you realised you had a sizeable audience and, moreover, that you were talking way beyond the confines of your comrades in the SWP?
RS: The readership began with a small number of socialists radical lefties who found the blog on MediaLens and the Bill Hicks message board. My comrades in the SWP mainly discovered the blog later. By 2005, I was starting to get more than 1,500 unique hits a day and by the time Katrina happened, it was sometimes registering more than 8,000 a day. During that year, I had persuaded a number of other writers - including China Miéville - to contribute, so that people wouldn't just be coming to see my sorry ass.
MT: When and why did you first decide to write The Liberal Defence of Murder?
RS: I had been asked by someone at Verso if I wanted to write a book on the topic, presumably because they had noticed me obsessing over the liberal belligerents on my blog and my scornful piece about Hitchens which appeared on MRZine. They gave me the opportunity, and I grabbed it like the hustler I am.
The shape the book eventually took, as a genealogy of liberal imperialism, was prompted by the combat clerisy themselves. They were the ones appealing to the legacy of 19th Century liberal imperialism. They were the ones vaunting a kitschy manifest-destinarianism, as well as a muscular determination to visit vengeance on the barbarians. It was they who culled their catchphrases from a disgraced imperial lexicon. Unless I wanted to write a gossipy, huffy polemic in the manner of Nick Cohen's What's Left, I had no choice but to anatomise these discursive strategies from their origins to the present day.
MT: How long did it take you to research and write up?
RS: About one and a half years, but I have to admit that most of the work was done in concentrated bursts of activity for a few weeks here and there. You see, I am colossally indolent when not fanatically pursuing a heretic or two.
MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book? How did you overcome it?
RS: Yugoslavia. The complexity of the topic was such that I was sure I would make mistakes, and I was equally sure that the shrill hysteria about the topic would ensure a ferocious response when I did. My main strategy for getting over that was to interview a few knowledgeable people for overall perspective, and then massively overwrite the detail (my editor wisely told me to cut it down substantially). Surprisingly, barring a verbose and taxing appraisal by an apologist for Croatian nationalism, most reviews don't seem to have found that aspect of the argument especially problematic.
MT: I think Yugoslavia is pretty difficult for everyone! When Nato was bombing Yugoslavia back in 1999 the Left seemed genuinely to be confused as to the purpose of the intervention, and since then it seems, along with Sierra Leone, to have become the template for a "good, selfless, progressive" intervention. But, of course, it wasn't any such thing...
RS: Your aposiopesis calls for a detailed explanation. Well, it is true that there were well-meaning left-wingers and liberals who were taken in by the advertisements for humanitarian intervention. However, I do think that there was more than 'confusion' at work for the most part. If anything, they discovered a prurient passion for war. Rarely has so much sententious horseshit been dumped on an unwary public as during Operation Allied Force. The currency was urgency - there was no time to think, a holocaust was imminent, and the choice was between fascism and imperialism. In that context, any cavilling about ulterior motives for the intervention was considered at best morally trivial, or at worst a sinister conspiracy theory emanating from sympathy with a 'fascist' regime engaged in 'genocide' and an 'anti-American' disposition.
Every day these people woke up, they were fighting World War II all over again. In this puerile Spielbergian ethical universe, the only important question was when the United States would bomb the railway lines and send in the cavalry. It should be "lights out in Belgrade", we were told. Susan Sontag demonised the Serbs in toto, and delivered the shrill verdict that there is "radical Evil in the world" and that is why there are just wars, while her son cheered "one, two, three, many Kosovos". We had The Independent explaining the racial differences between the tall, blonde, milky-complexioned Albanians the squat and swarthy Serbs, which recalled American race lessons about the differences between Chinese and Japanese during WWII. And then there were the exhortations to treat the Serbs as being collectively guilty, Milosevic's "willing executioners" and so on. It was a truly deranged period in which activists and people who had considered themselves on the left, were more eager for war than the State Department. David Aaronovitch even pledged that he was ready to fight for his country if called upon, as if the whole war effort might depend on the meagre efforts of a middle-aged Hampstead liberal with a Balloo the Bear physique. I'll bet anything you like that he wouldn't have been up to ten push-ups at that point. Still, the embarrassment for those supporting the war was that the American president was reluctant to send in a ground force, while the British PM was far more belligerent - noticeably, it was in this period that the 'pro-war left' really fell in love with Blair.
The background of the Rwandan genocide is important here. The main lesson drawn from Rwanda was that 'the West' - the Euro-American powers united under the canopy of NATO - was far too reluctant to intervene in genocidal situations. This was the wrong lesson, for a number of reasons. First of all, it was based on a sociologically disembodied account of the civil war and genocide purveyed by journalists, an account given some spurious coherence by reducing the conflict to a simple struggle between good and evil. Such grandiose journalistic tropes mobilise opinion without informing it. Secondly, it was based on the false assumption that there was no US intervention. Scholars as diverse as Mahmood Mamdani and Alan Kuperman have shown that the US did intervene by proxy, supporting an invasion of Rwanda by the RPF from bases in Uganda. It subsequently supported the RPF's maximalist demands, wrecking any prospects for a successful peace deal, such as that negotiated at the Arusha Conference. The RPF then took care to wage its war largely outside the areas where genocide was being perpetrated. Having successfully taken power, they then became one of the most venal and brutal ruling classes in Africa, enriching themselves through the plunder of the Congo where they have practised genocide. This racist, corrupt and exploitative regime remains the darling of the US and Britain. Liberals can treat Rwanda as an object lesson in the dangers of abstention and the virtues of intervention only by ignoring these outstanding realities. Thirdly, it was based on naive assumptions about the relationship between war and genocide. The evidence is that war is the main context in which genocide occurs, partly because war has an inherent tendency to degenerate into a war against civilians deemed to be supportive of the enemy, and also because the conditions for utter social breakdown and the struggle for group survival are amply furnished by war. The idea that military intervention is the ultimate antidote for genocide is, in this light, palpably absurd.
Similar false assumptions abound concerning the break-up of Yugoslavia. The standard narrative has it that the Serb leadership engaged in a conspiracy to build an ethnically pure 'Greater Serbia', that they were prepared to engage in war and genocide to achieve it, and that this above all else was the root and cause of the subsequent wars, including in Kosovo. One consequence of this unlikely scenario is that it implicitly exculpates every other participant in the civil war. Thus, for example, we know about the Serb-run camp at Trnopolje because it made front page headlines with comparisons to Belsen. However, few have heard of camps run by Croatians and Bosnian Muslims, where torture, rapes and murders were carried out, such as Bugojno, Orašac, Gabela, Tarcin, Musala, Donje Selo and so on. We tended to hear about Serbian atrocities, but not those carried out by Bosnian general Naser Oric, and not the repression of Serbs in Krajina. This is obviously because most journalists were either uninformed or uninterested in crimes not attributable to the supposed 'Greater Serbia' conspiracy. A multifacted civil war between nationalist parties competing for influence and control was reduced to a mawkish morality fable without history or context. A second element in the narrative holds that the US did not intervene until too late, when it bombed Serb positions in 1995, and that when it did use military violence it proved just the remedy that was called for. In fact, the US intervened early on in the negotiations process to adopt the Bosnian leadership as a client, urging Izetbegovic to assume a rejectionist posture that undermined available peace deals, such as Vance-Owen. It then shipped in weapons and thousands of 'jihadis' into Bosnia. Both of these forms of intervention ensured that any future Bosnian statelet would be a US client, and they also extended and aggravated the war and guaranteed more death. These were far more decisive interventions than the bombing of Serb positions.
At any rate, with this context established, liberals had a set of assumptions and a tradition of healthy ignorance on which to base their support for war in Yugoslavia. There was even an element of wilful credulousness. If the US government and media told them that genocide was being perpetrated by a Kremlinesque bogey man, it should have been a basic first step to check if this was supported by any known facts, but it was almost a moral imperative to take the story at face value. To question it was to make oneself the equivalent of a Holocaust-denier. But the claim of genocide was false. The Serbian government was engaged in the violent repression of a 'Greater Albania' insurgency that the Kosovan Liberation Army had launched in 1996 with a series of attacks on police stations. This army had taken control of much of the Kosovan land mass and repressed its enemies before the first wave of sustained repression by Serbian army was launched in 1998. That repression was undoubtedly vicious, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were driven out of their homes. But there is no evidence that it was in any sense a genocidal campaign.
Late in 1998, during a negotiated lull in the fighting, the US adopted the KLA as their own proxy army and trained them. The KLA subsequently engaged in a series of violent provocations, and the counterinsurgency resumed albeit with less vigour than before. The CIA reportedly penetrated the OSCE monitoring teams and used that position to direct the KLA fighters. Later, the US would introduce the KLA to a seasoned ethnic cleanser named Agim Çeku (Kosovan PM 2006-08), who effectively ran the army's ground operations during the war. The US also used the negotiations process to lay down unacceptable ultimatums to the Serbian government, including the stipulation that the whole of FRY should be occupied and Kosovo run as a 'free market' economy. As a pretext for war was being prepared, you suddenly had the spectacle of those who were at that time arming Colombian and Turkish death squads, and imposing genocidal sanctions on Iraq, pretending to be mortally wounded by the killing of 45 people in Racak. Suddenly, it was 'genocide'. Clinton invoked the Genocide Convention to secure UN acquiescence, while dozens of human rights groups demanded intervention to stop 'genocide'. Kofi Annan warned of a 'killing field'. As the war began, we were told that 10,000 people had been killed, or 100,000 people. One estimate put the number of deaths at as many as 500,000. Notice that these were estimates offered in the early phase of the intervention, not afterwards, and thus referred to killings that did not result from the prosecution of Operation Allied Force. They were all false. Afterward, the Wall Street Journal found that much of the disinformation was coming from the KLA itself. The total number of bodies on all sides discovered in Kosovo was approximately five thousand, by no means all of them civilians and by no means all of them on one Albanians. One estimate based on an epidemiological survey suggested that from February 1998 to June 1999, twelve thousand had died of 'war related trauma' on all sides, by far the greatest number (ten thousand) during the NATO bombardment. Just as the NATO intervention had accelerated the refugee crisis, in other words, so it had intensified the repression in Kosovo. This was entirely predictable.
After the war had ended, the KLA launched a wave of ethnic cleansing against 200,000 Serbs and Roma, while the UN was invited by the US to establish a trusteeship. The strategic rationale behind the intervention was later explained by one of Bill Clinton's national security advisors, David Benjamin, who asserted that NATO enlargement was necessary to cope with (or, rather, contain) Russia. The US now has a permanent base in Kosovo. This base, Camp Bondsteel, is being used as a detention centre and has been described by the EC Human Rights Commissioner as a 'smaller version of Guantanamo' - not the only way in which the Clinton era prepared the way for the Bush era. The upshot of all this is that liberals, demanding NATO intervention to terminate a non-existent 'genocide', applauded a process that resulted in two rounds of ethnic cleansing, thousands of deaths, and an ethnic nationalist regime in Kosovo under colonial supervision. This was the miserable zenith of humanitarian intervention, and there are some people who are still delighted about the whole affair.
MT: The "bombing Left" is not quite the new phenomenom that some might take them for -- can you please sketch a history for us.
RS: The important point is that liberalism emerged as part of the same historical moment as the development of capitalism, the rise of European colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade and race 'science'. Liberalism was always implicated in these processes, from Locke to Tocqueville. US liberals of the Progressive era were generally explicit imperialists and white supremacists, none less than the paladin of 'liberal internationalism', Woodrow Wilson. What you refer to as the "bombing Left" is part of the same history. Large parts of the developing left and labour movements in the 19th Century partook of the colonial triumphalism and associated doctrines such as 'social Darwinism'. The regnant view was that much of the human race was bound for extinction if it wasn't possible to civilize them. Thus Karl Kautsky argued in 1882 that: "In so far as they cannot be assimilated by modern culture, the wild peoples will have to disappear from the surface of the earth."
Left-wing apologists for imperialism also borrowed a chauvinistic version of humanitarianism from the liberals, namely the idea that - as Eduard Bernstein put it - the "savages" under colonial rule were "without exception better off than they were before". The Fabians similarly believed that self-rule was as useless to non-white people as "a dynamo to a Caribbean" and that for their own benefit it was necessary to impose the "grandmotherly tyranny" of colonialism. Labour's 1919 manifesto, radical in so many other ways, continued to enjoin Britain's duty to the "non-adult races". The Russian Revolution, and ensuing national liberation struggles often fought under the impress of some kind of marxism, put those explicitly advocating empire on the back foot: they had to change the terms of their argument, and they did so with reference to the exigencies of containing communism. Even then, the racial and colonial aspects of American dominance took a while to be suppressed. The USSR was itself considered an "oriental despotism" resulting, according to George F Kennan, from "a century-long contact with the Asiatic hordes" whose effects had only been concealed by the "Westernised upper crust of the Tsarist elite". Of especial concern was the commie attempt to weaken the power of Western states in colonised nations, which produced a fear of "premature independence" for those not yet adequately schooled in the arts of government by whitey, who might prove easy meat for the Muscovite menace.
What we have seen since 1990 is the restoration of formerly discredited paternalistic pleas for empire. Michael Ignatieff, who really made his name in this era, has been the most forthright about the consequences of 'humanitarian interventionism': postcolonial independence has been a failure, peoples without large repressive states to keep them in check are liable to slaughter one another, and America should fully assume the burdens of empire. David Rieff, resiling in horror at this development, described how the humanitarian intervention that he had championed had allowed "the rebirth of imperialism, with human rights as its moral warrant".
MT: Why do you think so many on the (soft) Left were prepared to believe what looked to the rest of us to be transparent lies and throw their support behind the invasion of Iraq? What accounted for their naivety, duplicity and lack of historical awareness?
RS: I am reluctant to concede that they were actually on the Left, or that their judgment on Iraq was consistent with being on the Left. However, their stance was a logical result of their support for Clintonite 'humanitarian intervention'. They didn't all foreground WMD, as Bush did, but rather the humanitarian capacity in which American soldiers would purportedly be acting. Christopher Hitchens prophesied that, following a few surgical strikes, "a massive landing will bring food, medicine and laptop computers to a surging crowd of thankful and relieved Iraqis and Kurds". There would be no war, so "bring it on". This was the mirage that liberals had been chasing throughout the 1990s as they demanded armed intervention into Somalia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
What was new was the Islamophobic undertones, which ensured that once the war degenerated into the bloodbath that it did, a minority could continue to defend it on the grounds that the carnage only proved how wicked and ungrateful the enemy was.
MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with their responses to your books? Have you learned anything from them?
RS: I read them, sighing, shaking my head, fanning my armpits and muttering pointless rebuttals at the computer screen. I have responded to a few critical pieces on my blog, but I am not sure if I have learned anything from them other than the peculiar habits of reviewers.
MT: The "bombing Left" seems to think of some of the hard Left as the pro-Faith Left. Do you think bad compromises have been made by some on the Left associating with homophobic and mysogynistic Islamic groups?
RS: It is strategically sensible for the liberal belligerati to focus on this issue and try to make the antiwar movement out to be 'the enemy within', in bed with the enemies of "Western values". But it is by no means sensible for us to take their accusations as the starting point for a discussion. For example, this word 'associating' has quite a nebulous meaning here. I might 'associate' with Islamophobic liberals in defending the right to abortion, but does that involve a compromise on my part?
My attitude is that a broad political campaign like the antiwar movement has to include everyone who opposes the war on whatever grounds, provided they aren't outright fascists. Incidentally, if your goal was to win people away from homophobic or misogynistic ideas, you'd stand a greater chance of having that argument by working alongside them on issues that you agree with them on than by just shunning and denouncing them. This is not a particularly controversial point when one is 'associating' with Christian groups in anti-debt campaigns, even where it is certain that a great number of them are homophobes and committed patriarchs. Moreover, it is impossible to take such strictures seriously from those who have aligned themselves with mass murderers.
I fear this argument ultimately isn't about 'Faith'. It is one of the endless variations of the 'integration' and 'values' discussion that resulted from colonialism and subsequent immigration from formerly colonial societies. It is now taking place in a context of renewed imperialist aggression in which the idea that Muslims are weird and damaged people, neo-barbarians, is an important part of the justification for imperialist violence. For example, when the celebrated atheist writer Sam Harris can say of Islam that "the basic thrust of the doctrine is undeniable: convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world", and argue that fascists have the most sensible view of the threat that Islam poses to Europe, the role this has in justifying the 'war on terror' is obvious. He even goes farther, arguing that torture should be acceptable against such foes, constituting nothing more than "collateral damage". That such a despicable man is so widely appreciated, especially by the liberal hawks, says a great deal about what the obsession with 'Faith' is all about.
MT: How should progressives walk the fine line between being vocally anti-Islamophobic and yet retain their own distinct secular radicalism?
RS: I don't detect a 'fine line' between these two conditions. The Islamophobes in practise advocate an increasing encroachment by the state on matters of value, on conceptions of the good, and so on. That is not secular. Thus, while formally 'secular' concerns are presented about faith schools, or religious clothing, there is no doubt that what motivates them is the sudden discernment of a supposed threat to something called 'British values' or 'Western values' by Islam, and the desire for the state to thwart the threat. The result, which is that Muslims are singled out for opprobrium and suspicion, has nothing to do with secularism: it is its reverse. It is therefore not only possible to oppose this logic and remain secular - to be truly secular, it is *necessary* to oppose such logic. Further, the claim to Enightenment, rationality and open-mindedness made by the soi-disant seculars is hard to sustain in light of the Spenglerian mysticism that they indulge in, with their insistence on the idea of "Western values". Historically, "Western" has been a synonym for "white", and so it largely remains. The idea that a coherent set of values can be adduced as the specific intellectual and moral property of the descendants of northwestern Europeans is not merely unsustainable: it is racist.
Secular liberals really shouldn't find it a challenge to defend Muslims from ascriptive humiliation, but the discourse of the 'war on terror' has utterly deranged their perceptions.
MT: What other political blogs do you read / recommend?
RS: Not that many. Jews Sans Frontieres is very good, and Doug Henwood's blog contains some invaluable economic commentary. 3Arabawy is essential reading for the low-down on the socialist and labour movements against the Mubarak dictatorship. For a blogger, I don't really pay much attention to blogging.
MT: We started exchanging a few emails recently because of the extraordinarily bad Orwell Prize shortlist. What do you think Orwell would have made of the shortlist?
RS: As you're referring to the shortlist for the blog award - eventually won by a policeman for daringly belabouring 'feral youths' and the 'Evil Poor' - I had better point out that Lenin's Tomb was included neither in the longlist nor the shortlist. So, naturally, I think Orwell would have detested it every bit as much as I do.
I also suspect that Orwell would have been horrified at the idea of such a prize being named after him. Awards are like statues, in that they only seem to attract copious amounts of shit.
MT: Are you aware that the powers that choose these things are reading your blog?
RS: Oh, are they? Are you sure they're not just looking at the pictures and mumbling the syllables to themselves in sheer bewilderment?
MT: What's the best book you've read recently?
RS: America's Kingdom by Robert Vitalis - a wonderfully lucid and perceptive history of ARAMCO and the Jim Crow regimes that American capital transplanted to the various oil and mineral frontiers during the 20th Century. Mahmood Mamdani's Saviors and Survivors also impressed me, both because of the exquisite attack skills he displays when filleting the 'Save Darfur' crowd, and because of the sophisticated historical analysis. Fiction-wise, I have enjoyed the first two installments of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, in which a super-bad-ass heroine kicks the ass of various misogynists.
RS: I love Wilde, and the essay you mention was probably the first socialist text I ever read, although there are moments when the egotistical sublime degenerates into egotistical absurdity. I could be wrong, but I think it was here that Wilde first refashioned Christ in his own image, a dirty trick that he would repeat in De Profundis just to show how little prison had altered him. Christopher Hitchens has argued, probably correctly, that the heroic individualism and distrust of the mob in Wilde's socialism contains a coded plea for the right to live as a sexual outlaw. This is a fuck sight better than most excuses for megalomania. But I read The Soul of Man during that low, dishonest decade in which the Left was largely capitulating to neoliberalism, and in which New Labour was reviving every discredited form of bourgeois cant. I read that it was finer to steal than to beg. I read that disobedience was man's original virtue. I read that one is shocked, not by the crimes of the wicked, but by the punishments inflicted by the virtuous. I read that the rich need to be liberated from their property, for their own good. I read all that and compared it to the farting balls that the ever aphoristic Tony Blair came out with - rights and responsibilities, fairness not favours, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime - and was reminded that behind every political failure is a literary failure. While I'm on the subject of Wilde, why isn't it more widely known that the highest achievement in socialist literature to date is The Importance of Being Earnest? To think that bourgeois audiences to this day can watch a Miramaxised version of the play, and not notice a vicious attack on their own proprietorial obsessions, their class bigotry, and the narrow self-interest embodied in the values that they claim are universal and enlightened, is a real shame. Someone should point it out to them. Let them go and watch Jimmy Carr, and keep their grasping philistine hands off Wilde.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
RS: If you want to make a career out of being a political writer, you have to find a way to market utterly conventional ideas as acerbic contrarianism. You could dig yourself into a happy little rut expostulating about spongers, illegals, multiculturalism and the neglect of Ordinary Decent Bloody People, and so much the better if you can make believe that by doing so you are gnawing at the conscience of an uncaring elite on behalf of a disgruntled majority.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
RS: I would like to say that ultimately, when all's said and done, my opponents are as human as I am and I don't harbour any hard feelings toward them. But I'm not going to.