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The Imperial Boomerang, or Why the Left needs Anti-Imperialism

This is the final article in a five-part series examining the ‘imperial boomerang effect’ and its operation in a range of contexts

Connor Woodman18 June 2020

The Imperial Boomerang, or Why the Left needs Anti-Imperialism

Remember that the body of people who have ruined India, starved and gagged Ireland, and tortured Egypt, have capacities in them – some ominous signs of which they have lately shown – for openly playing the tyrant’s game nearer home.

William Morris

The articles in this series have shown how some of the most coercive institutions of Western states, from the U.S. surveillance apparatus to the British police and intelligence services, have been forged through a history of imperial domination. Western ruling classes have long been imperial ruling classes, faced with the twin threats of anti-colonial resistance and domestic working class unrest. The practice of repressing resistance in the colonies, where racism and massive power asymmetries facilitate the most vicious modes of experimentation, has formed a key part of the ruling classes’ arsenal of experience, experience which can and has been brought to bear on the problems facing them closer to home: the imperial boomerang effect.

Not only this, but the dynamic of racialisation integral to imperial practice has provided Western ruling classes with a most powerful weapon for splitting and defanging resistance to domestic rule. The identification of large swathes of the Western working class with whiteness has often broken any possibility for solidarity between white proletarians and those hailing from the global South. Indeed, the term ‘white privilege’ originally referred to the ‘petty preferences offered to all whites […] in order to create a cross-class, elite-dominated [white] political coalition’, as David R. Roediger explains. In this original rendering, ‘the benefits of the crumbs from the masters’ tables’ were ‘pitiable and fully worth rejecting’ in favour of cross-racial working class solidarity.

Beyond its use as a tool for dividing the working class, the infestation of racism from colony to metropole forever risks bursting at the seams into fanatical fascist mobilisation. The deep roots of European fascism sprout from the long history of European colonialism.

If we grant the central importance of imperialism in creating the modern West, from macro repressive structures to micro proletarian identities, from the prevailing liberal institutions of social management to the genocidal organs of mid-20th century fascism, then what strategic suggestions ought to be drawn by a 21st century Western Left?

Anti-racism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism: three sides of the same pyramid

As global migration from the postcolonial peripheries to the old colonial heartlands increases, and the non-white sections of the Western population expand, these racist tendencies are intensifying. Today, racism continues to structure everything from Brexit to advertising, sex to sport. When white workers feel more affinity with their white rulers than their fellow Black workers, the possibility of a powerful and unified working class movement receives an irreparable body blow. Confronting racism and building a cross-racial movement is a vital task for us today, not just because it is morally imperative – although it undoubtedly is – but because the prospects for the liberation of all of us depends upon it.

The imperial boomerang teaches us that anti-racism cannot hope to confine itself to the domestic sphere, ignoring the predations of the imperial state abroad. Racialisation does not exist only in the mind of whites in the West – it is actively constituted and generated through the practice of racialisation, a large part of which takes place in an imperial context. Race(ism) is generated through the militarised border, through the foreign invasion, through the bombing of darker peoples, through the exclusion of millions from access to Western medicine and basic food-stuffs, through the dispossession of Indigenous populations and the extraction of resources from the lands of the global South. Without confronting these international imperial phenomena, racist microbes will continue to cross borders and re-infect the domestic polity of Western nations. An exclusively domestic anti-racism is akin to a trying to eradicate a global air-borne pandemic through a vigorous vaccination programme in one country.

Similarly, fascism is the fanatical child of imperialism. The background conditions which provide the fertile ground for (neo)fascist organising – organising which, as Liz Fekete has warned, is expanding at a terrifying rate across Europe – are to be found in the racism and imperialism embedded within Western society. As long as the West continues to dominate and exploit the majority of the world’s darker peoples, the contradiction of liberal humanist rhetoric and exclusionary imperialist practice always risks being resolved into fascism. Any anti-fascist movement has to simultaneously confront the architectures of imperialism.

Of course, there is a dynamic interplay between these tendencies: domestic racism generates further impulses towards imperial expansion, and a second wave of fascist state-seizure within Europe would likely herald an unimaginable wave of militarised colonisation beyond Europe’s borders. The point is that the Left must clearly treat anti-racism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism as interlinked, vital components of a broad strategy for social transformation.

What does it mean to be anti-imperialist?

Let us sketch what an anti-imperialist politics might look like when applied to probably  the most pressing issue facing us today, the global climate crisis. Climate breakdown can, perhaps, be considered the most catastrophic instance of the imperial boomerang effect.

The fossil-fuelled capitalism which has pumped unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has been inextricably bound up with European colonialism. Today, the US military is one of the biggest polluters on earth, wasteful consumer products are mass produced in global South sweatshops for Western consumers, and Indigenous-populated rainforest in New Guinea and the Amazon – huge carbon sinks – are under threat from Western-backed governments and corporations. What Naomi Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, ‘subset[s] of humanity categorized as less than fully human, their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable’, are working their way from the global South to the global North. As the world’s elites pull up the draw-bridges, militarising and policing ever-more restricted zones of tranquillity amidst oceans of climate carnage – ‘climate apartheid’, in the recent words of a UN special rapporteur – more and more of the West’s marginalised populations will be discarded on the slag heap, left to fight over society’s few remaining scraps.

Due to the West’s historic and continuing responsibility for Co2 emissions, a climate movement up to the task must take hold in the richest parts of the globe. If that movement is to be successful, it has to work hand-in-hand with front-line climate defenders in the global South: those struggling against palm-oil deforestation in West Papua, opponents of the oil industry in Colombia, the ‘climate warriors’ of the Pacific. Any movement which fails to do this will fail to address the root causes of the problem, and will stand by haplessly as Western corporations intensify their extractivism in the abandoned neo-colonies of the global South.

The chances of agreeing on the necessary international action to limit climate change will also depend on buy-in by the states and populations of the global South – they are unlikely to sign up to any proposed agreement which further locks-in imperial-structured inequalities of wealth and power. This is why a ‘Green New Deal’ that does not aim to redress international inequalities is strategically unsound. To have any chance of building the unified international movement that we need, we have to place the interests of the global South on a level pegging with those of the West.

An injury to one is the concern of all

The imperial boomerang effect may be one particular example of a more general feature of systems of social power: the tendency for the most marginalised within a generally oppressed population to be used as guinea-pigs for weapons that can be deployed against a broader strata of the populace. It emerged recently, for example, that U.S. prisons are being used as laboratories for voice-recognition software, software which will undoubtedly find its uses in the broader apparatus of surveillance and control in the near-future. Recent history is replete with similar examples, whether unsuspecting mentally-ill patients being used in CIA-funded experiments with LSD and sensory deprivation, or soldiers serving as unwitting barometers for the impacts of radioactive exposure. This rebounding feature of asymmetrical power systems may be one way in which power inequalities are self-reinforcing; how, as philosopher Peter Dews puts it, ‘once social domination begins, then it […] perpetuates itself almost irresistibly’.

We must also be attentive to certain recent twists of the boomerang. Former colonies, for example, are now involved in the circulation of colonial methods. With the collapse of formal European empires in the 20th century, newly independent regional powers saw an opportunity to launch their own colonisation projects: Indonesia in East Timor and West Papua, Morocco in Western Sahara, Israel in Palestine.

The technologies developed by these new colonisers now boomerang across the globe. Israel is at the sharp edge of weapons development and counter-insurgency practice, using the Palestinians as guinea pigs for its latest technologies of death and control. When two international security firms began trialling electronic monitoring equipment for suspects on bail in the UK in 1989, they drew on tech originating in the Israeli military. Once again, the requirements of colonialism are spurring on technological development that are soon repurposed for civilian methods of control in the West. Sri Lanka, which subjugates its internal Tamil population, is beginning to play a similar role. The Metropolitan Police tactics that led to the execution of Jean Charles De Menezes in London in 2005, for example, were partly borrowed from Israeli and Sri Lankan practice. The importance of mutual solidarity with the modern-day anti-colonial movements resisting these states is clear. Imperialism is a force-multiplier for the ruling class, expanding its resources, experimentation grounds and tools of repression. To combat the ruling class, we must remove this force-multiplier from its repertoire.

These reflections put a more materialist spin on the traditional slogan that, ‘An injury to one is the concern of all’. This rallying cry, sometimes conceived as a normative injunction, expresses a deeper reality about power, and what is needed to confront it. Without standing in true, hard-won and carefully navigated solidarity across race- and border- lines, the Left of the West will be doomed to parochialism, myopia and failure. Our interests, and our ability to liberate ourselves here, are directly bound up with the totality of imperial domination structuring the globe. Martin Luther King’s pithy proclamation from a Birmingham jail in 1963 that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ is no mere moral abstraction – it is a strategic truth.

Connor Woodman is an independent researcher, writer and the author of the Spycops in context papers, available at:

This is the fourth article in a five-part series examining the ‘imperial boomerang effect’ and its operation in a range of contexts; ending with a reflection on the boomerang’s strategic lessons for the 21st century Western Left. Read more here.

See all our anti-racism reading here.

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