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Sanctions anyone? Imperialist contradiction or the unintended consequence of involuntary decolonization

Originally published: Black Agenda Report on March 16, 2022 by Philippe Gendrault (more by Black Agenda Report)  | (Posted Mar 18, 2022)

The U.S. sanctions regime has created great damage throughout the world but also hastens the decline of imperialism.

In support of the white supremacist Ukrainian puppet government, many U.S. and European companies have been withdrawing from doing business in Russia. The supposed purpose of such sanctions is, of course, to strangle a country’s economy and its people into submission to the will of imperialists. And yes, sanctions kill, particularly in countries that do not have access to certain goods, necessary materials and complex technological services and need to import them. But there is also another aspect of sanctions, and that is the looting via the “confiscation” of assets belonging to the sanctioned country. Theft and piracy by any other name…The consequences are dramatic, especially for the people, and are thus criminal and illegal acts perpetrated by imperialist powers. Therefore, we should oppose any kind of unilateral economic sanctions imposed by the U.S.-EU axis of domination.

Concerning the events occurring in Eastern Europe today, we can cast a questioning look at these sanctions imposed upon the Russian Federation and offer some unexpected inferences.

In a veritable propaganda blitzkrieg against Russia, most are throwing their support behind the white supremacist government of Ukraine set up in 2014 by the axis of domination, including U.S. and EU businesses. Many news outlets have proudly published lists of private corporations interrupting all commercial exchange with Russia and/or withdrawing their activities from that country. Their righteousness is spilling over in the lovefest for the Ukrainian people!

Over the last weeks, the following corporations declared that they would no longer do business with Russia: Airbus, Alphabet (Google and YouTube), Boeing, Disney, ExxonMobil, Facebook, Ford, Harley-Davidson, Mastercard, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, Reddit, Snap, Twitter, Visa, McDonald, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and probably many more. To this exodus, as has been explained over and over, is added a series of financial sanctions, such as the partial exclusion of Russia from SWIFT, the potential revocation of Russia’s status as most favored trading partner and so on, which of course will not be without consequences for Russia’s financial and economic well-being, at least for the time being.

Although the seriousness of these sanctions’ impact on the Russian people and the country’s economy is no laughing matter, it is difficult not to smile at the notion that depriving the Russian people of Disney movies, IKEA furniture or Harley-Davidson motorcycles will be seriously punitive. Dear God! How will Russian people survive without flat-pack furniture? These examples, comical as they may be, reveal another dimension of sanctions, both on the side of the “sanctioner” and the sanctioned.

Sanctions and Paternalism

On the side of the powers that impose sanctions, the omnipotent narcissism is highlighted blatantly. The premise of such sanctions is that the sanctioned nation will not be able to function without the products and services that are now prohibited. In other words, the implicit idea is that the sanctioned country will not be able to survive without the countries imposing sanctions, and either the submission of the targeted government or its downfall is to be expected. The fundamental belief on the part of countries imposing sanctions is that what they provide is so fundamental, so indispensable to the sanctioned nation’s functioning that the sanctions will be effective.

Moreover, the Euro-American assumption is that no one can do without Euro-American goods and services because—let me repeat what the U.S. is never shy of claiming—the United States, like the goods and services it provides, is on the order of a necessity, that it is The Indispensable Nation. This belief is both ideological and economic: the axis of domination needs unrestricted access to markets in order to validate and justify the Pax Americana.

Unfortunately, with this logic, other nations on this planet, especially those outside the Euro-American sphere, end up dispensable. Unlike the United States, everyone else can just be taken over or completely done away with.

This premise has always been an essential and intrinsic construct of colonial ideology insofar as colonial powers have always claimed to be indispensable to the colony’s proper functioning. Even at times of impending independence, colonial powers persisted in claiming that the newly independent nation would most likely fail without its Western colonizer’s backing. This argument has often been, if not always, the ideological motive behind continued neo-colonial and imperialist activities in ex-colonies. How can these poor souls ever be able to function without their colonial masters? The ideological belief that the colonial powers’ indispensability to the colony’s functioning is not only self-prophetic and erroneous, but also acts as a cover for the fact that the People are the ones who are indispensable to the functioning of a country, colonized or not. In the same way, the capitalist believes that he is indispensable to production, when in fact the workers are the ones making the factory productive, not him.

This paternalistic premise is no less at work when it comes to the imperialist ideology targeting the Russian Federation since the fall of the USSR.

Beyond the absolute plundering of Russia and its neocolonization throughout the 90s, the set of sanctions imposed on Russia today is a continuation of the axis’ domination. This strategy is premised on the notion that there is no conceivable way Russia can, will, survive economically, socially and politically independently of the United States and the European Union. Of course, financial and economic rationales abound to justify such a premise, but we assert that beyond these rationales, these beliefs are entertained because ideologically, the U.S. and the EU truly assume that they are, well, indispensable to Russia’s functioning while Russia itself is secondary at best.

The overestimation by colonial countries of their own power has certainly been demonstrated by the victories of anticolonial independence struggles throughout the world after 1945. Today, Russia may be added to the list of all those nations that have been resisting the hegemonic policies of the U.S. and the EU.

Unintended Decolonization

On the side of the sanctioned country, things can be, to say the least, difficult. One need only look to Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, North Korea and others to witness the strife and struggles these countries face as a result of sanctions. Sanctions do render life extremely tough for the people, especially when sanctions are applied to medical supplies and other life-saving and essential resources. As it has been said, sanctions kill.

However, not all sanctioned nations are the same. The economic consequences on a nation naturally vary from country to country. Thus, Cuba, Venezuela or Iran will deal with sanctions differently (from Russia). Russia differs from these countries in its size, its access to resources, its history and much more. The consequences of sanctioning Russia, for the axis of domination, are not going to be the same as sanctioning Nicaragua. In this light, has the axis of domination underestimated the target of its wrath?

Without disregarding anything about the evils of sanctions, we can consider their unintended consequences by taking a long-term view. Currently, the punishment meted out by U.S./EU powers will no doubt tax Russia’s functioning and have a negative impact on its people’s well-being. That said, the hailed withdrawal of multiple Western corporations from Russia may inevitably serve as a de-neocolonizing process, a painful and difficult process, but nevertheless a liberating one.

Russia certainly may not have wished for such a commercial withdrawal and exclusion from many markets, however, it might just benefit from being sanctioned in the long run. How so? From the standpoint of political economy, the long-term advantages may outweigh the painful short- and medium-term cost as these sanctions may “force” Russia into becoming independent from the very Western interests exiting the country. In other words, the ongoing isolation and exclusion of the Russian Federation from all Western commercial activities and the consequent withdrawal of Western interests from Russia may indeed signal the return of an independent and sovereign Russia, an independence that admittedly ceased in the most tragic manner with the fall of the Soviet Union.

We can perhaps even hypothesize that this commercial blockade and other sanctions are reactionary responses to Russia’s refusal to bend to the rule of the axis of domination and its supranational imperialist institutions. From the U.S./EU perspective, this is profoundly intolerable as it confirms that the Empire might no longer matter as much as it has in the past but still wishes it did.

We also have to assume that Russia will find ways to survive the sanctions given that it is unlikely to cave to U.S. and EU sanctions. What this would mean for Russia’s future remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, short of a war of global proportions, the U.S. full spectrum dominance is no longer as powerful as it was not so long ago.

As the croupier says, les jeux sont faits, rien ne va plus ! The die is cast.

Involuntary Emancipation

Viewed in another context, how would we interpret the exit of French and other private corporate interests from West African countries? How would we interpret the situation were these African countries to be cut off from economic and financial ties to French and European financial and economic interests? Most likely, the separation would hopefully be construed as emancipatory, a step towards full economic and political independence from French and European private financial interests, and from the umbrella of imperialist and capitalist institutions (the IMF, World Bank, ECOWAS, etc.) in West Africa. Would this be a blow to West African nations? Most likely. The technological and scientific expertise required for extraction and exploitation of raw materials is indeed extremely complex and costly. And certainly, we can assume that the exit of such expertise would have consequences on these nations once freed from these private corporate and neocolonial interests. The same can be said about finance and infrastructure. No doubt, the transition would be difficult.

On the other hand, and this is crucial, these African nations would now certainly be free to seek out other sources of expertise and negotiate favorable, non-exploitative contractual terms for the extraction and exploitation of raw materials, contrary to those imposed by neocolonial powers and private financial interests. African countries would be able to restructure economic impositions by global imperialist institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. This independence is most likely what most imperialists fear in Africa, namely, that African nations would no longer function under the thumb of their ex-colonial masters and their supranational institutions, but even thrive without them.

Imperialism Destroys Itself

The imperialists face an inherent contradiction when it comes to sanctions. While the objective of sanctions is to subjugate a targeted nation, it simultaneously introduces its opposite, namely, the possibility for a targeted nation to achieve a greater degree of economic and political freedom. If a sanctioned nation falls in line, sanctions would have of course attained their economic and political objectives. But when sanctioned nations succeed in resisting the demands of sanctioning powers, the former represents a most powerful and perhaps existential threat to imperialism. Today, Russia’s refusal to succumb to sanctions, whatever Russia’s domestic politics may be, represents a significant blow against imperialism like there has never been since the Soviet world hindered capitalist and neocolonial expansionism.

When confronted with resistance to sanctions, imperialist powers predictably impose even more sanctions. Paradoxically, brutal as they may be, piling on sanctions may further the decolonization of a nation by forcing its independence from imperialist control and private financial and economic entities. Of course, imperialist powers can turn around and simply stop imposing sanctions, but such a move is unthinkable for them as it would render the very strategy of economic sanctions absolutely useless. Western powers are therefore today in a bind and confronting a situation it has not faced in a long time, and certainly the first time for the European Union.

The irreversible decline of Empire can no longer be denied. The present situation in which imperialist powers find themselves has brought to light an event of historical proportions. We are witnessing the axis of domination reach a limit it cannot cross, of course short of waging a catastrophic war. The refusal of Russia to act as a comprador state in the service of U.S. and EU interests has set a significant precedence of non-alignment with imperialist interests, thereby increasing the number of nations which have been resisting neo-colonial and imperialist takeovers such as Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Syria and others.

The power structure of imperialism has shifted. While in the past, imperialism could be illustrated by the relations between nations of the so-called center and nations of the periphery (colonies and neo-colonies), today imperialism has extended its reach to the whole world, including the center nations. In other words, the process of national destruction, exploitation and oppression of the Global South, of Africa in particular, has expanded to and is implemented the world over. This expansion applies to the U.S. and EU economic policies and the exercise of control by imperialist interests over Russia post 1990s, as well as to the member states of the EU itself.

From a political economic standpoint, can we then speak of the macroeconomics of sanctions in terms of decolonization and emancipation? Answering this question may provide a framework to understand the process of emancipation from the claws of imperialist powers, from the U.S. and its allies, and from supranational entities like the EU, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, etc. It appears that imperialism so far has been quite adept at postponing confronting its own contradictions. But today, the imposition of sanctions on Russia uncovers the inherent self-destructiveness of imperialism.

Finally, we have to consider how Western powers will negotiate the consequences of these sanctions on their own economies. How will they tolerate the transformation of the world and the rise of an alternative order to imperialist hegemony? How will the Empire face the demise of its own self-proclaimed existential indispensability?  Short of an all-out nuclear war, to what lengths will imperialist powers be ready to go to postpone their downfall?

These are urgent questions for us. We have to make sure that this suicide-bombing system does not take the People down with it.

Philippe Gendrault, Ph.D. is a mental health provider committed to the anti-racist, anti-imperialist struggle for social and political justice.

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