Imperialism, Repressive Tolerance and Resistance

Imperialism is monstrosity pretending to be beauty. It is rape pretending to be love; murder pretending to be salvation; and theft pretending to be largess. How anyone even slightly ruled by their heart could know these things and still believe imperialism might be beneficial to humanity is beyond my understanding. However, judging from the men and women ruling the United States and its subsidiaries, it appears that such thoughts are somewhat common. A quick series of clicks on the remote through the television news networks substantiates at least two things. The first is that Washington and its pundits want US residents to believe that the US military can still do something positive in Iraq. This is despite everything Washington and its centurions (not to mention Britain beforehand) have done to that nation and its people over the past three decades. The other is that Washington, through NATO, has nothing but selfless motivations for stirring up the fray in Ukraine.

Christopher Hitchens, who pretended to be an anti-imperialist until it no longer served his pocketbook (or maybe he just had a Saul on the road to Damascus moment), wrote an essay explaining his support for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In that essay he wrote, “Some say that because the United States was wrong before, it cannot possibly be right now, or has not the right to be right.” This statement was false when Hitchens wrote it and it is false now, Islamic State or no Islamic State. As long as the United States is an imperialist nation, it will be on the wrong side of humanity. There is absolutely no way around this simple fact. Indeed, as long as the United States is the primary (if not only) imperialist nation, its actions will tend to do more harm to humanity than good. Any system whose success depends on the theft of land and resources; the destruction of cultures and the domination of everything can result in no other possibility. History has proven this.

Back in the early part of this millennium, not long after the events known as 9-11 and the subsequent US-led attack on Afghanistan began, I wrote a piece that originally appeared in a journal of the time called the Alternative Press Review. The piece, titled “The Terrorism of War,” argued that the war on terrorism had very little to do with fighting terrorism and lots to do with “attempting to establish permanent US domination of the world and its resources.” Almost thirteen years later, the war on terrorism continues to drain resources and political intelligence from the US populace. Furthermore, this war has not ended terrorism and only seems to have increased the demographic base from which so-called terrorists arise. In other words, the whole damn thing is a lie. The restrictions on movement and the controlling of thought in the United States are more pronounced than they were thirteen years ago. So are the profits of the war industry and its subsidiaries in homeland security and intelligence. Communications between US residents and everyone else are monitored by those intelligence agencies and its contractors at a level never seen before in human history. Those who divulge this fact are jailed or forced into exile by the national security state. Authoritarian methods and their rationales are not only accepted, but even supported by an apparent majority of the very same citizens whose communications are being watched. The land of the free is more of a misnomer than ever before in its existence.

Most alarming perhaps is the lack of response by the populace. Like the response to the Borg in the sci-fi series Star Trek, resistance seems to be considered genuinely futile. Herbert Marcuse’s definition of what he termed “repressive tolerance” never rang truer.

1. the passive toleration of entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on man and nature is evident, and

2. the active, official tolerance granted to the Right as well as to the Left, to movements of aggression as well as to movements of peace, to the party of hate as well as to that of humanity I call this non-partisan tolerance ‘abstract’ or ‘pure’ inasmuch as it refrains from taking sides–but in doing so it actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination.

The facts on the ground apparent in the first part of the definition seem obvious. As US residents, we tolerate the disintegration of the nation’s physical infrastructure—roads, parks, schools, transit systems, etc.—and the ongoing (and recently intensified) destruction of our environment via fracking, etc. despite the damaging effects we can see these phenomena have on our health and the environment. Then, of course, the ever present wars and threats of wars demand an economy based on the production of materials and mindsets for those wars. This in itself means an economy with little socially redeeming value.

Now for the second part of this definition. When Marcuse wrote this in 1965, the nation’s television screens had presented a fair number of civil rights protests and perhaps even a protest or two against the nascent movement against the US war in Vietnam. Most of the protests were non-violent on the part of the protesters and often violent on the part of the police. The effectiveness of the protests was still up in the air, but their nonviolent nature was applauded by all but the most racist and reactionary. This was Marcuse’s point. The protests were tolerated and, by being tolerated “protect(ed) the already established machinery of discrimination.” As the 1960s progressed, more radicals realized the truth of Marcuse’s words and began to protest in less “tolerable” ways. This enabled the politicians, pundits and police to label these protesters as essentially anti-democratic and helped to create divisions between “good” and “bad” protests. In 2014, this process has become an art form finessed by government enforcers and the sycophantic media. Indeed, even peaceful protests, like those seen across the nation during the brief moment of the Occupy Wall Street movement, ended up being perceived as “bad,” a fact which gave law enforcement the go-ahead to attack those protests with nightsticks, fists and pepper spray. This violence and the threat of greater violence is even greater when the protesters are primarily non-white, as was obvious in the recent protests in Missouri against the police murder of Michael Brown. Video stills of cops armed in full military gear and sighting protesters with military assault weaponry was as clear a symbol of intolerance from the state as has been seen in the US since at least the 1992 urban rebellions following the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King in California. The difference is that the protests in Missouri were peaceful up until the police attacked the marchers.

In his September 10, 2014 speech on the subject of the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq, Barack Obama discussed the creation of what would be a mercenary force in Syria whose mission would be twofold—fight the Islamic State and fight the official Syrian military. In essence, this force sounds a lot like the contra forces created by the Reagan White House to fight the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Those men, who were a mix of committed anticommunists, CIA operatives, mercenaries and just plain criminals, caused a lot of death and other havoc inside Nicaragua. The fact that Obama seems to have chosen this model (for now) to wage war against those perceived as threats to US interests seems to prove once again his fealty to Ronald Reagan and not some liberal champion his supporters hoped his inspiration might be.
When it comes to protests against US imperial adventures in 2014, there seems to be none. The process by which the antiwar movement of millions during the reign of George Bush was assimilated into the other wing of the ruling class called the Democratic Party takes Marcuse’s definition and refines it to what is perhaps its ultimate realization. The resistance to the system’s policies is now an integral part of the very system whose policies it opposes. The man elected by people opposed to the war in Iraq is now re-starting that war. Opposition to Bush’s war, as it was called just a few years ago, now means support for Obama’s war. Like Bush’s, it is a war that has no determinable end or borders except for those set by those who wage it. A battle against armed Islamic separatist rebels could quickly become a battle against the Assad regime in Syria. This could unleash destruction as yet unknown. Support for a failing pro-NATO regime in Ukraine against armed separatist rebels opposed to that regime could quickly turn into a NATO rapid reaction force engaging Russian military forces on Russia’s western border. Is our resistance futile?

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: