The Revenge of History
Paraphrasing Diderot, the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens once warned that he would “go on keeping score” about the refusal of some countries to participate in the invasion of Iraq “until the last phoney pacifist has been strangled with the entrails of the last suicide-murderer”. Among the “phony pacifists” to whom Hitchens was referring were a number of his former friends on the Left, now, in his eyes, as a result of their opposition to the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”, apologists for totalitarianism and theocracy in the Middle East. Hitchens’ post-9/11 conversion from socialism to neo-conservatism was indicative of a broader split in the Western liberal commentariat, occurring at the start of the 21st Century, over the use of American military power to ‘promote democracy abroad’.
In the US, where Hitchens lived and worked, the anti-interventionist Nation magazine squared off against the interventionist Atlantic Monthly. In Britain, pro-war journalists such as David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen went up against staunchly anti-war publications like The Independent and the New Statesman. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of American militarism in the mainstream British press was the Guardian. Indeed, due in no small part to the efforts of its comment editor, Seamus Milne, the Guardian’s opinion pages became a leading international forum for criticism of British and American foreign policy. Milne himself, in his weekly Guardian columns, led much of that criticism and was even personally admonished by Tony Blair’s government when, following the fall of Kabul to NATO forces in late 2001, it prematurely declared the Afghan war a success.
The Revenge of History, newly published by radical press Verso, is a collection of Milne’s journalism from the last decade, most of it dedicated to the subjects of global conflict and British political economy. The core argument advanced by Milne is that the opening years of the 21st Century have been marked by four “epoch-making changes”: the failure of the US to ‘democratise’ Iraq and Afghanistan despite a decade of occupation, as well as Russia’s expulsion of Georgian troops from South Ossetia in 2008; the implosion of Western finance capitalism and the subsequent, massive state bail-outs needed to save it; the rise of China to the status of global economic power; and the emergence in parts of Latin America, specifically Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador, of alternative social models challenging the dominance of Anglo-American neo-liberalism. For Milne, these developments collectively represent the “passing of the unipolar moment” – the end of a brief period of US hegemony which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Milne’s analysis stands up. Evidence of American decline, of a shift in power from west to east, of the emergence of the Global South as an international counterweight to the post-industrial North, is not hard to find. In fact, Milne could easily have added to his list the recent revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, which toppled Washington-backed dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and replaced them with regimes less inclined to subordinate national interests to US strategic interests. Equally, had this book been published a month or two later, Milne might have cited the failure of the Coalition Government’s programme of ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’ as final confirmation of the bankruptcy of neo-liberalism – an experiment from which even the United States seems to be tentatively retreating.
Yet despite this, the book is let down by its repetitiveness. Milne is heavily reliant on a relatively small stock of arguments. For instance, his assertion that terror attacks on European and American cities should be understood as a political response to Western imperialism, while persuasive, crops up with such frequency that it begins to lose all traction. The density of the writing is also off-putting. All but a handful of the dozens of articles contained here are Guardian columns which vary little in structure or length. Coupled with Milne’s rather severe style, the effect on the reader can be wearing. There are, however, some excellent pieces as well, most notably a lengthy essay, published in 1997, exploring New Labour’s ideological origins and likely trajectory in government. Milne correctly anticipated that the Blair era would be defined by the consolidation of the grip of commercial and financial interests over the state.
Since many of these articles were first published, Milne has made good calls on a range of other issues as well, which explains why The Revenge of History is, at times, more than a little self-congratulatory. Milne is very keen to let his critics know how wrong they were, and how thoroughly right he was. Of course, even before it became clear that Washington’s “revolution from above” in Iraq was collapsing into disaster, Christopher Hitchens had begun to distance himself from the Bush administration on account, he claimed, of its “impeachable incompetence”. The difference between Milne and Hitchens is that Milne based his initial judgement about the war on evidence and historical experience, rather than a desire to be noticed, listened to and lauded. This is the distinction between good polemical journalism and bad.