Conquest Abroad and Repression at Home

By Christopher Carrico

“Civilization originates” Stanley Diamond tells us, “with conquest abroad and repression at home.”  Diamond himself had seen both firsthand.  Stanley was a WWII veteran who served in North Africa, and, like many American men of his generation, went to University on the G.I. Bill.  He completed his PhD in cultural anthropology at Columbia University in 1951.  His dissertation, Dahomey: A Proto-State in West Africa, was based mainly on historical research, and dealt with aspects of state-formation in West Africa during the era of the transatlantic slave trade.  Along with Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, Diamond was part of a left-wing student cohort at Columbia who had studied under Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict, and who later came to be among the principal architects of North American Marxist anthropology during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

While his dissertation earned him an immediate reputation for being one of the brightest rising stars on the scene in American anthropology, the quality of his work and his reputation were not enough to earn him a secure place in American academia during the 1950s.  Because of his well known left-wing political commitments he was dismissed from his teaching position at UCLA during the McCarthy Era purges and black listings.  Unable to find academic work in the US for three years, Diamond spent part of this time in Israel doing ethnographic research in an Israeli kibbutz and in a nearby Bedouin mountain village.

Diamond’s best known teaching gig was at the New School for Social Research, where he began working in 1966, and where he founded and chaired the Department of Anthropology.  His best known work, In Search of the Primitive: a Critique of Civilization (1974), was a collection of essays that had been written in the turbulent political atmosphere of late 1960s and early 1970s.  These essays developed a general theory of state formation, and used anthropology in the service of the critique of the exploitation of capitalist and tributary states, and of their imperialist wars of the present and the past.

Well known for his contributions to humanist anthropology, Stanley Diamond was also the founder of the prestigious journal Dialectical Anthropology, and was an accomplished poet — publishing poetry chapbooks Totems (1982, Barrytown, Ltd.) and Going West (1986, Hermes House Press).  The poet Gary Snyder said of him: “Stanley Diamond is an upper-upper Paleolithic intellectual-hunter on the track of the biggest game of all—the State.”

Of the entire post-WWII generation of North American Marxist anthropologists, perhaps only Eleanor Leacock’s work was more ground breaking.  Both Diamond and Leacock were incredibly influential on the theories of state formation emanating from the research of American Marxists such as archaeologist Thomas Patterson and anthropologist Christine Gailey, and the work on primitive communist societies like that of Canadian Marxist anthropologist Richard Lee.  I recite the lineage of this “little tradition”, written against the grain of the dominant traditions of positivist scientism and post-structuralist obscurantism, not only as a way of honoring my ancestors and my elders to whom I am grateful, but also, to call attention to the nature of intellectual commitment in academia, and its inseparability from commitment to one’s concrete politics within the societies and communities where we teach and write, and within the societies and communities where we conduct our research.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, anthropology was still widely thought of as the study of “primitive” societies.  Indeed, among many laypersons and academics worldwide, this is still how the field is generally understood.  The contrast is of course, is with the “civilized” societies in which sociologists and other social scientists historically worked.  Diamond’s purpose when he wrote In Search of the Primitive: a Critique of Civilization was to use the modes of production and reproduction that Marx and Engels had called “primitive communist” as sources of critique of the so-called civilized societies.  Diamond found in anthropology what Marx found in Hegel, the world presented standing on its head, and Diamond’s project was to try to show us the world right-side up.

Diamond’s “primitive” was much like Rousseau’s, whose ideas Diamond believed Marx and Engels carried to their right philosophical and political conclusions.

On any occasion that I have to talk or write about the pre-state societies, about societies without economic classes, about societies that are kin-based and egalitarian, it is the work like that of Leacock’s and Diamond’s, and all of the anthropologists who stood with the party of humanity, that have enabled me to be able to talk more clearly about the inhumanity and oppression of state-base, class-stratified societies that like to think of themselves as being civilized.

Civilization, indeed, began with conquest abroad and repression at home.  And, of course, its ongoing reproduction is still impossible without imperialist wars and domestic exploitation, repression and discipline.

Civilization originates with conquest abroad and repression at home.

I sat and reflected on these words from Stanley Diamond on the day of November 13, 2010, as the Black is Back Coalition marched on Washington to demand an end to U.S. imperialist wars.  Anthropological studies such as Stanley Diamond’s dissertation, Tom Patterson’s Inca Empire and Christine Gailey’s Kinship to Kingship help us to understand that the processes of class exploitation at home, and aggressive wars of conquest have been characteristics of state based and class stratified societies since their origin.  These are not separable processes, but rather, interrelated aspects of a continuum of the violent and coercive process of the extraction of surplus value in both tributary and capitalist state-based societies.  Patterson does an excellent job of emphasizing the fact that, since their inception, class stratified societies have used conquest and imperial expansion as one the main ways of attempting to resolve the contradictions that are inherent in the reproduction of all class stratified societies.  When the crises inherent in state-based societies reach their more advanced stages, the intensification of exploitation at home, the escalation of repression of dissent and resistance at home, and the escalation of wars of conquest that bring ever wider areas of territory under a regime of tribute taking or of capitalist exploitation under the control of imperial elites, are part of a single inseparable process.  As the U.S. Civil Rights movement progressed from the demands for reform in the 1950s, to the more radical demands of the 1960s, one of the characteristics of this movement that made it such a threat to the American status quo, was increasing recognition that the fight against exploitation of poor people and people of color in the United States was the same struggle and the same fight as that of the movement against the war in Vietnam, and its subsequent regional expansion into a war in Laos and Cambodia.  Leaders like Martin Luther King, whose original goals were reform-oriented and moderate, came to be ever more conscious that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  It is for this reason that the violent suppression of domestic dissent embodied in programs such as the FBI’s COUNTERINTELPRO, aimed particularly at the destruction of the African American Civil Rights movement and at the American Indian Movement, intensified as these movements more strongly aligned themselves with the movement against the Vietnam War.  Movements today, such as the Black is Back movement in the U.S. are at the vanguard of the movement to resist attempts to co-opt Black America, and American liberals and leftists, into unconditional support for the America’s first Black President (however exploitative, violent, aggressive, and repressive the domestic and foreign policies of the Obama administration have turned out to be.)

Neo-liberalism, Chemical Warfare, and the Rape of the World by Finance Capital.

In some ways, as vile as the programs of repression and assassination of the 1960s were, they by no means reached the scale and intensity of the destruction that has been inflicted upon the Third World and on poor and working class peoples of the U.S. and other advanced capitalist nations during the years since roughly 1980.  While an elite comprador class has thrived in parts of the Third World, this capitalist success has come at the price of the immiseration of millions of poor and working class people, and a regime of thinly disguised genocide by economic and by military means.  Simultaneously, the United States has experienced over three decades of stagnating and declining wages of its working class, and the mass incarceration of its underclass.  The U.S., supposedly the world’s protector of freedom and equality, has now long had, by far, the highest incarceration rate per capita of any country in the world.  The overwhelming majority of these prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, from communities that were deliberately flooded with heroin and crack cocaine by the CIA, the DEA, who worked in collusion with international drug cartels as a way to fund right-wing paramilitary forces and dictatorships in the Third World, as well as a way of destroying historically oppressed peoples living in the internal colonies of the capitalist metropole.  The defeat of national liberation movements, and anti-imperialist insurgency in the world’s poorest countries was intimately connected to the everyday warfare that was taking place on the streets of America’s poor communities.  The warfare at home took the form of systematic police brutality, mass incarceration, and mass murder by means of the deliberate spread of drug addiction and gun violence, and the deliberate failure to take any rational measures to prevent the factors involved in the spread of HIV/AIDS in America’ most vulnerable communities.

These processes are well known in America’s Black and other oppressed minority communities, even while middle class America lives in deep denial and willful ignorance.

The New Danger

Shortly before 911, and the Bush administration’s subsequent wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, rapper Mos Def wrote a song that seems prophetic in retrospect. The song, entitled “War”, would later appear on his studio album The New Danger.  The ideas expressed in this song show a clear and conscious awareness of the intimate connection between repression at home and conquest abroad, that Stanley Diamond, in a very different way but in the same spirit, was trying to express since the time of his now obscure and relatively forgotten dissertation defended at Columbia University in 1951.  Here is what Mos Def had to say about conquest abroad and repression at home:

Palestine, Kosovo, Kashmir
It’s no different than the avenue that’s right here
An increase in the murder rate each year
Paramilitary unit keep the streets clear
Curtains up on the theater of warfare
Dramatic politics nightly performed here
Worldwide from Colombia to Columbine
Gun holders keep the dollar signs on the line

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