Here’s a cool conspiracy theory: writers are purposely injecting popular left discourse with a perverted interpretation of the concept of “agency.” And I don’t mean in university settings but more democratic spaces like Twitter. It’s being used by ostensible lefts only in service to US foreign policy and never in opposition.
Agency is “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” Typically, however, this is considered against the problem of Structure: “those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.” Playing up agency while ignoring structure is associated with the political right. That’s why it’s been surprising to see this tendency among left-identifying figures.
An example of right-wing playing up of agency is when my Fox-watching dad complains, for instance, that black people “know better” and slavery and Jim Crow and the drug war “aren’t an excuse.” It’s The Liberals who are actually racist (by denying agency), not those who think “criminals” (stealing and dealing for sustenance, sabotage against class enemies, expressions of righteous anger are included) are “responsible for their own acts.” In this flavor — the kind most modestly educated people would recognize — this usage loses its humanist luster.
And like the usage the country’s conservative boobs favor, the kind wielded by those we like to call the Celebrity Left is being twisted to serve a system that systematically denies people their agency.
Now… I normally wouldn’t ascribe to mendacity what I could pin on naiveté — maybe I should start doing that — but the remarkable frequency of Vice contributor Molly Crabapple’s smug non sequiturs over the last year poking fun at the very idea of CIA involvement in her crew’s messaging at least forces me to mention it. Not ONE instance of “CIA” in her feed is serious. At least her homie, Danny Gold, is willing to entertain CIA involvement in, well, anything. Journalists, especially foreign correspondents (Crabapple went to Syria for a minute one time) are often suspected of being actual spies and more commonly, handlers and assets. It’s a rather pervasive phenomenon, as Carl Bernstein — not a crank — documented in 1977. It ain’t that implausible of a charge, especially if your messaging seems useful to power. For the record, the CIA is not simply rumored to have been involved in an unknowable number of plots around the world, that is its actual openly admitted purpose. The CIA, obviously, engages in psychological operations. Even David Graeber seems loose with his suspicions as long as the same isn’t done with him.
In fact, I noticed a lot of “agency” (lol) talk when Ukraine was being backhoed by the international democracy machine earlier this year. I had only a faint idea of who Crabapple even was at that point; in my mind she was a radical definitely opposed to empire. I realize now I probably only had this perception because it’s her very specific branding. This is why I was surprised to see her “fuck yeah“-ing the release of the criminal former prime minister of Ukraine and making fun of those honestly curious about Greenwald sugar daddy Pierre Omidyar’s role in helping finance the latest USAID color revolution.
When I told her she was glorifying US foreign policy objectives and her “dismissing discussion of billionaires co-funding US foreign policy objectives is profoundly, proudly reactionary” she began her “agency” spiel:
Bonus: Tarzie never loses an opportunity to be prescient:
It’s not like anyone against whom the concept is rhetorically weaponized has argued the poor/minorities/workers/foreigners are not capable of identifying their interests and acting to satisfy them. It’s that we have an international juggernaut with almost literally all the money in the world behind it and a propaganda machine that has most people under its direct control — and many in its indirect control — believing its actions are righteous. Workers can strike — against a ruling-class owned asset. The Third World can organize a defense — against the ruling class’s war machine and massively destructive deployment of capital. We’re defined by our position relative to capital and the war machine. We’re too deep in the hole to just think positive.
Know who also has agency? The people who run the empire. Which is also the structure. So.
To establish a bit of perspective, here’s a map of countries in which the US has intervened just since WWII, often disastrously, despite these nations being populated by literally billions of agency-having human beings!
From William Blum’s Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, 2004
That’s a pretty bloody map. The US military and CIA are responsible for millions of casualties, the installation of dictatorships, and the gutting of totally agency-born democratic revolutionary processes throughout this period in one-third of the countries of the planet
. That’s not a theory.
All this “agency” talk leads very cynically into the quaint notion of “blowback.” The idea that “terrorism” exists solely because the US has predictably provoked it, that it has poked at masses of drooling animals and they have responded the only way they know how: extreme, senseless violence and oppression. This ignores that these “savages” nonetheless form focused militancies with specific goals. Yes, the US did “help” create the Islamic State but not in the “oops” way — it literally armed and financed either itself or through proxies organized groups of killers who have acted in ways probably not specifically predicted by the empire but whose actions will certainly benefit it in some way or another once it’s figured out how to profit from them. And it usually does. It’s happening now in Syria, and is ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the idea that these groups are deliberately promoted and often even created by Western and allied intelligence agencies is bizarrely dismissed as a denial of agency. Are we questioning that Muslims are capable of forming horrifying death-cults in hairtrigger response to previous “bad” interventions? Racist. Orientalist.
When this endless slaughter industry results in a handful of imperial citizen casualties this shouldn’t be looked at as “blowback,” a misnomer at best, or even a cost of doing business. A smattering of American deaths are so useful for the perpetuation of the machine. The ruling class is only strengthened. It is the structure.
Satire-forever-collapsing-into-itself Aaron Bady, on the question of whether we should destroy Libya, figured in 2011 that since our opinions don’t matter — and this is of course true — he’ll opine that hey Obama was probably right on this one, guys. Gadhafi was a real stinker, killing political opponents in his own country. In America, we brainwash our opponents and save the slaughter for people who don’t hold G8 passports. He spent 5,500 words gnawing on the reasons why the left might oppose intervention; the only one he doesn’t consider is that of principled anti-imperialism. It’s a tactic later taken up by David Graeber — who also supported attacking Libya — on “helping” the Kurdish revolutionaries in splintered Syria.
But all actions we might consider “imperial” are not equal, as Bady argued. When Gadhafi invests in infrastructure in Chad — even though it seems like a dick move to have it bear his name — it is still an anti-imperialist action. When Chávez funds political movements in Bolivia — even though they serve to reinforce his influence on the continent — this is still anti-imperialist action. This is because all of this is done in the face of the biggest imperial force: The West, The Empire. Washington and its closest, most murderous allies such as the UK and France are omnipresent, their roots snaking through the soils and breaking the pavements of almost literally every single country on the face of the earth. The kind of left that equates Russian state funding of RT America with Soros funding of “civil society” organizations in Georgia is not serious about even talking in opposition to the ideology that allows the West to remain astride the world’s peoples.
None of this implies anti-imperialist actions can’t be objectionable even to those who oppose the empire. I’m not a fan of revolutionary terror or liquidation of political opponents or even political imprisonment and I’d probably think that even if, as an anarchist, I weren’t among those who are usually first against the wall. But if the Cuban government puts away people who, even if they don’t intend to, are subverting anti-imperialist policies, it’s because they coincide with Washington’s goals. And if the United States has proven anything over the last 60+ years, it’s that its goals are to completely fucking destroy any Cuban system not within the firm grasp of the ruling classes. That is, it’s a reaction to empire. We all have agency, yeah, but outside forces — structure — shape our ability to fully express it.
The origins of this crap don’t matter, though apparently this twisting of the valid concept of agency made its way into pop leftism from philosopher Pascal Bruckner via Slavoj Zizek. What really interests me is a discussion of who gains when we look to our rulers for the solutions to the problems of being ruled. Which system is cemented? I think asking the question is answering it. Whether they mean to or not, the Celebrity Left is doing the empire’s propaganda work. That means they’re the structure. They’re denying agency.
Thanks to @RedKahina for her nonstop unpacking of imperial garbage and Tarzie for his help with research and general encouragement. Big credit to @PhilGreaves for providing many more examples of how “agency” is used to undermine anti-imperialist and revolutionary narratives.
I highly recommend Tarzie’s comment offering more “agency” blather from the usual suspects, including The Intercept‘s Maz Hussain, Omidyar acolyte Jillian York, and even Tom Friedman. Yes that one!
Jillian York has pointed out below that she regrets her defense of Omidyar and has changed her thinking on “taking US money.”
An excellent and much more in-depth riff on “agency” from @aseriesofpoints
“I think it’s important to clarify that liberals don’t really believe in agency; what they mean by agency is the people affecting situations without necessarily changing structures.”