A few years before the historian and author C.L.R James published his seminal work The Black Jacobins, he arrived in Britain to help a friend, Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine, write an autobiography. His time in the country imbued James with profound nihilism: “I had not been in Europe two years before I came to the conclusion that European civilization as it then existed was doomed,” he wrote in his book Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways. “[This is] an opinion which I have never changed and am not likely to change.”
James did not arrive at this conclusion by happenstance; it was foregrounded by labour strikes and riots across the Caribbean, followed by a nine-day British general strike in 1926, where approximately 1.5 million workers put down their tools and doffed their uniforms in solidarity with coal miners. Both strikes ended in dissatisfaction, and it took the outbreak of the second World War to bring the Caribbean strike to a close.
I bring up James here, because nearly three-quarters of a century since Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways was published, the rot he identifies at the centre of both European and American culture has rapidly spread outwards since the supposed end of the Cold War, and the necessity for political antibodies from the left has only intensified to a state of critical urgency. The world needs a unified, anti-imperialist movement that will stand in solidarity with colonized and subjugated peoples, just as workers in Britain once stood with coal miners and workers across the Caribbean stood with one another. Without one, James’s writing will, perhaps within our lifetime, become prophecy.
As I write this column, a military-backed coup in Bolivia continues to tear down the political enfranchisement and national self-determination of a socialist government. The details of this coup, including the frankly ridiculous contention that exiled Bolivian president Evo Morales’s run for a fourth term in office was “unconstitutional” and “illegitimate” has been exhaustively debunked, so I won’t recapitulate the argument here. But, frankly, the legitimacy of Morales’s candidacy is a moot point, as his entire political party (Movement for Socialism, otherwise known as MAS), has essentially been purged from office. Whatever one’s opinions of Morales, the fact that MAS’s legitimately elected party members cannot take their seats in congress, under the threat of state violence means that democracy has died in Bolivia.
In its place is a coup regime led by self-appointed “interim president” Jeanine Áñez, a member of a rump party which received only four per cent of the vote. Áñez managed to seize the presidency only due to the resignation of Morales, as well as his Vice-President Álvaro García, and Senate President Adriana Salvatierra (who did so only after the houses of government officials were burned down). Áñez, who has a history of inflammatory and outright bigoted statements against indigenous peoples in Bolivia, declared herself president not only without MAS members present in congress, but without enough total members of congress present to even achieve quorum.
Strutting into the presidential palace like a great popinjay and holding a giant bible aloft, Áñez declared “God has allowed the Bible to return to the Palace, bless us!” Not long afterwards, Bolivian police began firing at protesters, rousting MAS supporters out of their homes, and received a writ of immunity for any crimes committed in the process of “reestablishment and stability of internal order.” In common parlance, Áñez’s regime signed off on death squads. The “interim president,” has not yet announced a date for new elections.
Yet the response from Canada has been empty platitudes about “fair and transparent” elections and “standing with the democratic will.” The outcome of this obscene and appalling enablement of what very much looks to be a fascist regime is not hard to predict, given the last two times Bolivia has been seized by military coup, unions were broken, the political and individual agency of Indigenous peoples were suppressed, and workers were thrown into the most wretched extremes of poverty. And, of course, the country was thrown under the yoke of multinational conglomerates and condemned to debt peonage conditions under the IMF.
All of these conditions, by the way, were ameliorated under Morales’ socialist administration. The same Morales administration that nationalized its oil and gas industries, moved to protect its vast lithium reserves from external corporate interests, and gave rural coca farmers relief against decades of persecution by legalizing the crop. It pledged billions towards hydrocarbon exploration, freed the country from the shackles of the IMF and lifted millions out of poverty. But none of that miraculous growth, of course, would have done anything for the balance sheets of the investor class if this administration had been allowed to remain.
These aren’t rarities in global politics. The governments of nations that moved towards collectivism in order to secure national self-determination in the post-World War II period have been politically and economically undermined from outside, as in the case of Jamaica and Burkina Faso. When economic pressure has not sufficed, proxy military actors supported—if not funded and trained—by Western countries, have simply scuttled those governments, as in the case of Chile, Haiti, Congo, and Bolivia, many times over. Often times, the heads of those movements wind up exiled or dead, the nation thrown into chaos, and multinational companies swoop in to slap their labels on the nation’s natural resources and labour market as the newly installed government “pacifies” the unrest.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that much of our media and political classes have already formed a consensus regarding Bolivia, chiding the naïve left for believing their lying eyes, and nuance-mongering a straightforward conversation on human and democratic rights with the seeming intent on silencing conscientious objectors. The Pierre Trudeau administration displayed the same callous attitude towards “the riff-raff of the Latin American left,” after the 1973 military coup in Chile, thus enabling Pinochet’s murderous regime.
The rot of imperialism is a poison that has not only devastated the global south, but our own morals as well. It has respected people who profess to believe in human rights, individual freedoms and “rule-based international order,” yet argue against their own principles when the ‘other-ized’ masses in the global south fail to follow the playbook. It has us delegitimizing the self-determination of smaller (yet upwardly mobile) countries, enabling right-wing coups that we refuse to call coups, and then falling eerily silent once tear gas and machine guns are loosed on protesters.
Little wonder James had such a low opinion of Europeans, as well as Americans. If he’d spent time in Canada, he would have found few, if any reasons, to dampen his nihilism.