Notes on Libya

In April 2011, when the scholar Horace Campbell met with a small group of Angolan youth in Luanda, he did something unusual. He warned them to be careful in how they resisted their government. He said Angola was rich with resources, and it would not take much for “the militarists to drum up some pretext to occupy Cabinda,” an enclave province sitting atop some of the country’s most abundant riches. The source of Campbell’s caution is clear. For such destabilization is exactly what was happening then, and what is happening now in Libya – a country in chaos, effectively stateless, speckled with uncountable militia, now pocked by slave markets, and with all the “liberation” of lawlessness and encompassing danger and disorder. 

How that happened is the subject of Campbell’s crucial book: Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya. 1 The story he tells is only partially the story of the Libyan uprising, only by necessity the story of transformations internal to Libya. Fundamentally, it is the story of the sustained and destructive interaction between Libyan state and corporate organs, and those of the United States, the European Union, and their command posts amongst the Gulf states. Put simply, it is a book about imperialism. And appropriately, it begins with a Libya totally subservient to the United States, to the point that the Air Force was able to secure basing rights there in 1954. 

That lack of sovereignty marked Libya as under the sway of imperialism. And the anti-imperialist coloring of Muammar Qadhaffi’s colonels’ revolution became clear when it revoked those rights by expelling the U.S. Air Force from its Wheelus Base in 1969. What sort of revolution would it be? Campbell endorses the description of Ruth First, who christened it “the elusive revolution,” with its dubious links between state and society, and the muddied – if not clogged – channels for political participation which that revolution brought with it. 2 Initially it garnered overwhelming popular support. As Raymond Hinnebusch has observed, “The removal of the discredited ancien régime was in itself enough to predispose most Libyans to the new rulers.” 3   

Its foreign policy strengthened such a sentiment. The political zeitgeist across the global South was anti-imperialist. Nasserism was the Arab iteration of that sentiment, more of the Mashreq than the Maghreb, but with Libya a prominent exception. The government steadfastly supported the Palestinian and the anti-apartheid struggles. Alongside such contributions, Qadhaffi made some very bad calls, ones which cost – his support for Idi Amin of Uganda, his interference in Chad’s internal affairs. That inconsistency was nowhere more marked than in the government’s early verbal opposition to the Dhofari revolution, sliding into open support with and against the Shah’s intervention on behalf of British power. 

Nevertheless, such early errors clearly did not extend to social claims. One of the leading scholars of Libya argues, “If socialism is defined as a redistribution of wealth and resources, a socialist revolution clearly occurred in Libya after 1969 and most especially in the second half of the 1970s.” 4 Certainly such a redistribution must redistribute downwards if the word is to retain any meaning. Furthermore, we may object at limiting socialism to material distribution. Socialism can also more broadly refer to self-management, including participation in political institutions. In Libya, the character of state institutions was prohibitive of that participation – a structural defect which laid the grounds for Libya’s later deterioration. 

But socialism should also be understood as what Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera calls the “battlefield” between capitalism and communism. 5 Such a battlefield is necessarily global, with advances and defeats linked to one another. The advances of people’s struggles around the region, and indeed the globe, gave strength to others, at the level of morale and materially, too, since the battlefield was quite often literally that. But even at the global and figurative level, as with any battleground, advances upon it are partial, at least until victory. They are often followed by retreats, and can have unpredictable effects elsewhere on the larger landscape of struggle. Moreover, no advance is perfect. In a capitalist world-system, they may take the form of what García Linera calls “dispersed skirmishes,” the constant, scattered, desperate, passionate, flawed, and above all human “tendencies, potentialities and efforts to bring production under community ownership and control.”

Such skirmishes are often deadly fights, ending in tragic failure. Less frequently they culminate in messy transfers of social power, to the betterment of those looking for some space and time to live their lives in some kind of dignity. A requirement for such change is a transfer of resources from the holders of power to the dispossessed. 

The point is not to debate whether or not Libya was a socialist state. Much more interesting is understanding what were its strengths and what were its weaknesses. Such a perspective may help us to understand that a vital means of self-defense of anti-systemic projects is self-management, or the people’s possession and ownership of the struggle on institutional and ideological planes. But one must also understand projects such as Libya’s on their own terms, as the Libyan experience of and contribution to the rise of the South. By sidestepping methodological nationalism, we might see what bloomed in Libya as part of an efflorescence of Marxist and non-Marxist governments across the tri-continental arena. Such states made great improvements in people’s lives, ones which came at great cost and sacrifice, including, often, the phenomenon of such movements and revolutions eating their own. During the years after 1969 deep changes in Libya’s internal distribution of wealth and power occurred. Libya was one of the North African models of what was called Arab socialism. If one wishes to rue its shadows one ought to do so while also accounting for its lights – such as putting bread on the table for the hungry, or helping other peoples elsewhere claim control over their own destinies. 

It is in this very specific sense that it should not be ignored – although it almost universally is in the popular commentary on modern Libyan, in what comes close to a reactionary brand of historical-analytical revisionism – that a fundamental reallocation of Libyan wealth took place in this period. Indeed, it was during this time that forced redistributions reached their peak, with private enterprise basically eliminated. The result was that Libya had the highest per-capita GDP, and much more significantly, one of the highest standards of living in Africa. As Dirk Vandewalle, a historian extremely critical of the Qadhaffi government, comments, the average Libyan was “pampered by the egalitarian distributive policies of an oil state,” and lived well. 6 The early Green Revolution was a gift for Libya’s people. And not one from any messiah-on-high. It was, rather, the gift of what then seemed to be an irrepressible wave of movements sweeping the globe – less a gift, then, than the victory of the people. And as with any achievement of the people of the global South, it was not received well in the global North. Even by the early 1970s, amidst Qadhaffi’s pan-Arabism and strong support for the Palestinian national liberation struggle, the C.I.A. noted, “His headstrong pursuit of the Arab cause puts him in direct conflict with U.S. interests in much of the Middle East.” There was furthermore an effort, in the words of William Colby, a Deputy Director at the C.I.A., to prevent “Qadhafi’s influence in Black Africa, limit the expansion of Arab terrorism and terrorist organizations into Black Africa and thwart Arab efforts to embroil Black Africa in the Arab-Israeli confrontation.” A summary report observed, “African states and regimes friendly to the US – or Israel – are prime targets for Libyan intervention, mainly by financial means, but not infrequently by military support.” By late 1973 the U.S. government was considering “Pressure Points”; by 1975, the U.S. government was becoming apprehensive about Libya’s alignment with “the Palestinian ‘rejectionist’ groups (PFLP of Habash, PDFLP of Hawatmeh, PFLP/GD of Gibril).” 7

With mounting strength, and by turning a few other factions, Washington worried that such groups would “capture” the Palestinians. They saw that Palestine was a potent force, exerting an immense and unique gravity on the entire regional political landscape. A strengthened pole of opposition “would open the way to intensive guerrilla action against Israel from Lebanon, to an upsurge in international terrorism [sic], and to stepped-up subversive and other action against moderate Arab regimes and leaders.” 8

It was not merely on the foreign front that the actions of the Libyan government perturbed the United States. In the early 1970s, the Libyan government nationalized much of the foreign oil operations on its soil. In the words of petroleum economist John Blair, “Libya…moved a long way toward achieving Colonel Qadaffi’s objective of gaining ‘full control over the sources of oil wealth.” 9 This occurred amidst a broader rejiggering of the global oil system which benefited both the oil majors and the Libyan government, such that the pie of global oil revenues grew substantially, greatly enhancing U.S. global power and its symbiotic relationship with the major oil producers, especially those in the Gulf states. In this respect, the nationalizations had a contradictory nature. But Libyan domestic economic management was moving ever more firmly in the direction of state control. By the mid-1970s, the government was moving hard against domestic capitalism, restricting real estate speculation. The United States responded with trade restrictions. In turn, as Campbell notes, “The elementary claims at recovering national wealth were seen as threatening by the imperial forces.” 10 It was not merely the recuperation of national wealth which was at issue, but more to the point, the political ends to which Libya put its new power. As he continued, “in 1977 the U.S. Department of Defense listed Libya as a potential enemy of the United States.” 11 The Libyan government moved further to eliminate commercial circuits. In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli was attacked, and the Libyan government only slowly apologized. And in 1980, the United States removed its embassy. Soon enough, the United States sent its own gifts to the Libyan people – sanctions and cruise missiles. 

In the mid-1990s the United States ramped up those sanctions. And in the lead-up to the successful 2011 coup d’état, attempts at shattering the government also took other forms, including a bid at assassinating Qadhaffi by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in 1996. As Campbell notes, “the evidence of the complicity between the Saudi and Western intelligence agencies in supporting the LIFG revealed that the plans for military destabilization and the removal of Gaddafi were not new” – then as now, such groups worked as proxies for U.S.-Saudi imperialism, sowing chaos in countries whose governments balked at marching in lockstep with the U.S. order. 12

Yet apparent contradictions covered the surface of United States policy. By 2003–04, the United States was lifting sanctions, an apparent step towards removing Libya from the list of enemies. Around that time, “a new reforming current headed by [Qadhaffi]’s son Saif al-Islam emerged within the regime,” focusing on further destatization of state enterprises and their conversion into units easily acquired by Western capital. 13 Rising neoliberalism – best thought of as a global counter-revolution through which the nationally-embedded states which were the great gift of the global revolts which rocked the system from 1917 to 1970 began a gradual process of disembedding – and the removal of sanctions hinted at a new policy. Perhaps the Libyan government thought that the threat from the United States and its rising lieutenants in the Gulf like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates was receding. Not so, Campbell claims: “The neoliberal faction of the political leadership in Libya was too weak to deliver the economy and the Libyan reserves to the West,” while the non-neoliberal faction was getting increasingly uncooperative if not altogether nationalist, becoming “too aggressive in its financial operations,” while at the same time it committed to creating an African Central Bank, an African Monetary Union, and an African investment Bank, while “after December 2010, the Central Bank of Libya took the controlling position in the Bahrain-based Arab Banking Corporation.” 14 This last, still, seems to indicate Libyan integration into Gulf financial circuits, pointing to the partial nature of any reverse course.

Yet there is a downside to overstating the role of external violence, and understating
the structural basis for partial accommodation with Western monopolies. Such is not to divert blame from the United States for the demolition of Libya, but to understand how “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations.” 15 But Campbell does not neglect the other side of the story. Although he does not adequately link these processes to the mechanisms inlaid into the Libyan Jamahiriya from the very beginning, his narrative here is quite useful. He explains how amidst the global decline of anti-imperialism and the ideological and practical defeat of socialism as a globally unifying anti-systemic ideology, the right wing of the Qadhaffi government, including his own sons, was able and began to scrape the substance out of the state.

By the mid-1980s, oil prices were decreasing, and state management of distribution networks was beginning to gum them up. Meanwhile, infitah was in the regional air, as across North Africa the international financial institutions started to harry the authoritarian-clientelist states into dismantling their subsidy programs and decreasing state welfare spending. This was part of a global process, not merely a local one. Indeed, it is only the most exceptional of the 20th-century revolutions which have not seen a gradual reopening of internal inequalities which initial redistributions have played their part in closing. And Libya was not exceptional. Amidst the Libyan version of that global unraveling, which occurred after a U.S. cruise missile attack on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 severely damaged the government’s legitimacy, the leadership began to lightly liberalize the economy. It removed from state control a handful of the  enterprises which the revolution had nationalized. But those factories often foundered, with international sanctions preventing acquisition of spare parts or the hard currency needed for them. Meanwhile, throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, a bureaucratic elite grew fat off graft, while those with tight ties to Qadhaffi were able to profit from their proximity to power. Elsewhere, the ambitious agricultural and industrial development programs planned during the oil boom fell by the wayside as boom turned to bust.

By 2003, the Libyan government had entered into relations with the International Monetary Fund, privatizing a number of state-owned enterprises. In 2004, Libya opened up 15 new offshore and onshore blocs to drilling. Campbell also chronicles the burrowing actions of the “Western-educated bureaucrats [who] worked to bring Libya into the fold of ‘market reforms,’ and the deepening commercial relations with British capital.” 16 In 2007, British Petroleum inked a deal with the Libyan Investment Corporation for the exploration of 54,000 square kilometers of the Ghadames and Sirt basins. It also signed training agreements for Libyan professionals, helping create a base for neoliberalism within the government. By 2011, 2800 Libyan professionals were studying in the United Kingdom, learning “Western values” of destatization and thus the removal of the possibility for production and power to be responsive to the demands of the people. And indeed, part of why they were there was because of insufficient investment and care for the domestic Libyan university system, then in shambles. While basic welfare had been a constant priority of the revolution, the educational system had been less of a focus and had suffered the government’s inattention. 

Still, the right wing of the government could not wrest control of the heights of the economy from those sectors still somewhat committed to the national project. As Campbell notes, this was nowhere truer than in the oil sector: “From Wikileaks we now know that the Western companies were playing a waiting game with the Gaddafi regime,” whose “policy forced oil and gas corporations to renegotiate their contracts, so although there were openings, the Western companies lived with uncertainties.” 17 Campbell quotes a 2010 cable stating, “regime rhetoric in early 2009 involving the possible nationalization of the oil sector…has brought the issue back to the fore.” 18 Libya under Qadhaffi was mercurial, but against the ambitions of the plotters who would later depose him in a coup d’état, it was not a country sold to Western capitalists and their domestic helpers, the “reformers” who had “internalized neoliberal economic thinking and wanted Libya to become like Kuwait or the Gulf States – basically client states of Western capital,” as Campbell puts it. 19

Petroleum companies and much of the heavy industry remained in state hands. Part of the issue, also, was that Libya had such a vast oil surplus that it was able to provide for the poor even while accommodating the country’s swelling rich. What is crucial is that the state continued to commit large chunks of its petrodollars to social welfare – in sharp distinction to the petrodollar recycling regime in place between the United States and the Arab states of the Gulf. In that interlocking set of institutions and flows, the proceeds from Gulf oil sales, primarily from the purchasers of the consuming classes in Europe and Japan, led to the depositing of dollar surpluses in U.S. securities and treasuries as well as the purchase of U.S. weapons. U.S. political patronage has been another element of this system, all tied together into a global structure of accumulation. 

As he makes clear, the nature of “state capitalism under [Qadhaffi] had stifled the capabilities and autonomy of ‘liberal reformers.’” 20 And indeed, everyone knew the nature of the blockage. A major government figure, Ibrahim el-Meyet, told the U.S. embassy that there would be “no real economic or political reform in Libya until [Qadhaffi] passes from the political scene,” something which would “not occur while [Qadhaffi] is alive.” 21 Taking that advice to heart, the imperial core set in motion its plan to turn the country which he governed into ruin. 

Its method was to ride astride real and legitimate grievances: peoples’ concern over an inability to participate politically, the shrinking size of the public’s portion of the oil purse. Discontent, always there, took social expression amidst the flight of the Tunisian dictator, becoming tinder. Thereupon, amidst a lack of ideological unity, let alone programmatic anti-imperialism, the protests were overwhelmed by indigenous Western proxies, including right-wing sectarian groups, some tracing back to the LIFG, linked to Western intelligence. In turn, U.S., E.U., and G.C.C. imperialism of which the LIFG and kindred outfits was an expression completed the task of militarizing the revolt, and then used it as a pretext to immolate Libya. As Wolfram Lacher, a scholar who characterizes these events as a “revolution,” observes, “By and large, the unorganized unrest of the first two weeks was driven by underemployed young men whose education level and access to information technologies were substantially below those of their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts.” 22

One should not get lost in idle speculation about whether such protests were “organic” or a plot, dupes or willing participants. Fixation on the subjective mental state of the participants sidesteps the landscape of power within which such demonstrations unfolded. Few observers noticed how the Gulf ruling classes used Al Jazeera to beam the spectacle of revolt back at the revolting Libyans themselves, meanwhile amplifying the most sectarian, racist, and destructive elements within the uprising. Fewer accepted that such plans had been prepared well in advance of the 2011 events. One crucial exception was Maximilian Forte, whose important and judicious book on NATO’s role in destroying Libya, Slouching Towards Sirte, ought to be read in unison with Campbell’s contribution. 23 Indeed, Forte himself offers one of the strongest accounts of the dominant racist elements of the Libyan mobilization and their treatment of Libyan Blacks.

Still more broadly, as Campbell comments, the overall framework of the “conservative U.S. political forces [was] to preempt other revolutionary uprisings of the type and scale that removed the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.” 24 I would take issue with the characterization of the Egyptian and Tunisian transformations as revolutionary. Nevertheless, accompanying and indeed part-and-parcel of that uprising – one which Gulf and U.S. media encouraged and pushed along – was a militarized component, with objectives having little to do with freedom. Sectors of the revolt, armed and unarmed, were orienting towards Western power from the outset, with the Benghazi “committee” selecting a defected figure from the right-wing of the Qadhaffi government to man its helm. Furthermore, as Lacher continues, “With the disintegration of state institutions and defection of senior officials, an elitist political leadership established itself at the top of a hitherto uncoordinated popular movement.” 25 Indeed, 

There were also reformists and technocrats who had only briefly held senior positions under Qadhafi, such as NTC head, Mustafa Abdeljelil and the NTC’s “prime minister,” Mahmoud Jibril. On the other hand, many of the independent or opposition figures who joined the NTC are scions of the aristocratic and bourgeois families who had dominated Libya during the monarchy (1951–69) – some of which were already major players during Ottoman rule – and were mostly disempowered, expropriated and exiled under Qadhafi. 26

Such facts make clear that the character of leadership matters, against interpretations which see the people in motion and see nothing else: neither which people are moving, nor what may be moving them, nor crucially, what else is moving alongside them. Such a statement does not reject Libyan agency. It clarifies what agency means in the first place. As Perry Anderson observes, “If agency is construed as conscious, goal-directed activity, everything turns on the nature of the ‘goals.’” 27 Agency in the context of collective mobilization, he continues, refers to “those collective projects which have sought to render their initiators authors of their collective mode of existence as a whole, in a conscious programme aimed at creating or remodelling whole social structures.” 28 In this sense, different agents may have very different goals indeed, and the goals of some may subsume, envelop, or instrumentalize the goals of others. What some insist on calling a revolution looks far more like a right-wing coup d’état surfing a wave of disorganized discontent, with the brokering role, as we shall see, played by imperial violence, including its seemingly “local” agents.

Beyond questions of agency, some have put forward snapshots of popular sentiment as a post hoc index of the legitimacy of the illegal aggression against Libya. For example, there are polls which show that immediately after Qadhaffi’s ouster, the majority of the population, excluding the substantial percentage that supported the old government and had fled the country for fear of reprisals, wanted him gone. Putting that to the side, one must also note that sources such as Mohamed Eljarh of the Atlantic Council have observed much more more recently that many Libyans “are questioning the logic behind the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime – [an overthrow] which, after all, was supposed to make life better.” 29  Some Libyans certainly did suppose this, of course, but this does not make it true. The United States is not in the habit of making things better when it acts militarily at home or abroad.

It is important to pay attention to how that happens. And above all – and this ought to be clear even to those who (wrongly) reject arguments that Western power is indeed eager to turn civilian protests to its own ends, and who wrongly suggest that the West does not seek to deliberately militarize anti-government protests – when a primary means of influencing the course of the revolt is to arm elements most willing to be Western clients, the more militarized a headless revolt, the easier to drive it to the right. As Campbell continues, “Western intervention ha[s] a greater chance of success once popular revolts are militarized,” the reason that even bourgeois efforts at conflict mediation deserve popular support, given the incredible reliance of Western capitalism on military dominance to secure differential accumulation, a continuous feature of capitalism since its inception. 30

To that end, on March 12, 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council wrangled a few additional votes in pushing the Arab League to support a no-fly zone. On March 17 the Security Council fell into line, the pieces locking smoothly into place, a U.S. strategy which the New Yorker dubbed “leading from behind” 31  Meanwhile, amidst the attempt to put a multilateral and legal veneer on regime change, some put forth serious attempts at mediation. For example, on March 20th the African Union rejected foreign military intervention in Libya, and pushed for negotiations, the protection of foreign nationals, and dialogue. Forces on the Latin American left like Hugo Chávez eagerly embraced that proposal. Most of the Western left, still focused on the positive prospects of a “revolution,” ignored it. And clearly, uncritical cheerleading for revolution in the absence of revolutionary forces contributed to this outcome. For what is forgotten is that poorer sectors in the global South, as in the global North, can end up supporting reaction. An inability to see this fact blinkers contemporary analysis of the Arab spring, while such poor analysis in turn hobbles political resistance to the so-far successful U.S.-Gulf program to turn the uprisings to their total advantage. 

Meanwhile, as plans for peace, robbed of political support, stalled, the war on the ground built apace. Campbell draws on sources like Reuters and the New York Times, discussing “British, French and Qatari ‘trainers’ working ‘secretly’ with rebels on the ground,” or how “former soldiers from an elite British commando unit, the Special Air Service, and other private contractors from Western countries were on the ground in the Libyan city of Misrata.” 32 Special forces from the U.A.E. were coordinating flows of materiel, while pro-intervention newspapers were carrying reports of 5,000 Qatari troops on Libyan soil. This medley of mercenaries and other fighting forces was able to overwhelm the resistance on the ground in Libya – not least, Campbell notes, because the “Libyan armed forces had been degraded under [Qadhaffi] because the regime feared a coup d’état.” 33 This was yet another way in which the disembedding of the state led to it becoming so weak as to be unable to protect Libya from the predators who had been lying in wait since 1969, eager to destroy both the social gains of the Revolution and the example it held for Africa and the Middle East, representing the possibility of anti-systemic movements gaining state power and starting to level out hierarchies in the world system.

On this question of the agenda of imperialism, contemporary accounts increasingly offer no compelling explanation of its mode of operations. At one pole of what sometimes passes for anti-imperialist theory – realism – capitalism is staked on stability, and level and regulated inter-state competition. The corollary is that imperialism, or as they prefer, the pax Americana, is content with capitalist institutions, period. So, within this framework, hammering Libya is a kind of neo-con induced ideological error, akin to the Zionist-flecked militarism which led to the pummeling of Iraq. 34 A similarly naive view of U.S. power insists on the inadvertent disaster the United States birthed in Libya, a kind of bumbling-giant analysis of U.S. foreign policy. 35 Meanwhile, for those who insist that all state-capitalisms are identical, and identically degenerate, there is similar analytical debility. For them, Libya under Qadhaffi was without question a capitalist state. Its institutions, then, were merely a means to project power and promote an indigenous African capitalism. 36

All three perspectives miss key goals and facets of the foreign policy of U.S. monopoly capitalism. Certainly in the Middle East, the outcome of U.S. policy, remarkably consistent over the last 30 years at least, has been the destabilization and dismantling of the Arab republics and sowing chaos and devastation in any major or minor Arab or Muslim population center outside the U.S. security umbrella. The consistent thread of this policy – from Iraq, to Syria, to Libya, with Iran consistently on the target list, and Palestine and especially the Gaza Strip as a sort of distillate of U.S. goals – has been to dismantle any independent project, or even the state institutions or social forces which could forge or provide the institutional scaffolding for such a project. Independence may be considered with respect to both foreign and domestic policies. In terms of foreign policy, the United States has targeted those forces which have to any extent, continued to support anti-colonial or anti-imperialist militia and resistance forces. On the domestic front, the United States has aimed its fire at countries with states which remain, to some degree, socially embedded, and thus both potentially responsive to demands from below, as well as integral to the lives of those dependent on state services. Indeed, that embedding – put differently, the centrality of the state’s role in social reproduction – is central to what makes a national project national. It is the traces of such a project that the United States and domestic accomplices steering the uprising targeted, and in that they were successful. 

The question of stability, chaos, or blowback is not just a distraction, but misreads U.S. policies, which have sought to de-develop the region and splinter into shards any states that have retained the capacity to carry out developmental processes. Too much contemporary analysis rests on a cartoonish portrait of post-colonial states as purely coercive apparatuses. But such states are the crystallizations of the anti-colonial struggles. Their institutions, schools, hospitals, universities, and infrastructure are the fruit of whatever process of development post-colonial governments have been able to set into motion. From the standpoint of utopia, such achievements were woefully insufficient. From the standpoint of victory, one may diagnose weaknesses in terms of popular control of such societies. But from the standpoint of the United States, in this belt of states so central to world power, any order outside of that fully integrated into U.S. foreign policy imperatives and accumulation circuits has been intolerable, if history is any guide. 

Immanuel Wallerstein, describing the historical process of incorporation into the world-system, wrote:

Much of the “order” restored by the British after 1750 served as a remedy for an “anarchy” in the very creation of which the Western intrusion had played a significant role in the previous 100 years. The point is that capitalism needs not “order” but rather what might be called “favorable order.” The promotion of ‘anarchy’ often serves to bring down “unfavorable order,” that is, order that is capable of resisting incorporation. 37

Much the same applies to governments captured by anti-systemic forces during the 1917–1973 global revolt, which is precisely why Western governments are more than happy to throw them into chaos. It also applies to many states in the region and elsewhere such as Yemen, where a U.S. assault, subcontracted to Saudi Arabia, has sowed cholera and famine.

Meanwhile, chaos is the state of Libya in the aftermath of the Western blitzkrieg. Campbell counts over 1700 militias roving about “liberated” Libya as the state is no longer able to secure even a modicum of order – never mind law. He thus illustrates perfectly the now-preferred method of Western intervention: one which either inadvertently or likely quite consciously leads to the controlled demolition of the state itself. Looted Libyan weapons have flowed to Egypt, across the Sahara to Mali, leading to the 2013 coup d’etat, and on to a French-led intervention there. Such arms also went on to Syria under U.S. supervision, and many Libyans have been involved in the insurgency against the Syrian government. More recently, open-air slave markets have emerged in Libya.

All of these are the returns of the Libyan war which Campbell so carefully surveys. The book concludes with a call for an anti-systemic program premised on unity and national self-determination – the road not taken. Of course, the road not taken is also the one Western violence destroyed. Here Campbell highlights the assassination of Patrice Lumumba as one of the clearest examples of the West’s assault on Africa’s future. He does not mean to compare him to Qadhaffi. Nor would such a comparison stand. Rather, Lumumba here serves a different purpose: his memory is a specter of what Africa could have been and was prevented from becoming in substantial part by Western-sowed disruption and disorder. 

Referring to the region, to Africa, is not an accident for Campbell. Taking the widest perspective, he shows that counter-revolution is a global process, proceeding through concrete mechanisms, reversing real social gains. Its mechanisms include not just decapitating anti-systemic movements, removing from them their very best leaders, but also ramping up levels of ambient hostility. The deterioration of Qadhaffi’s government was not the result of that dime-store tautology, “corruption,” but because of inducements offered to those who might sell out the country, as well as, much more crucially, a dimming of the global revolt within which the colonels’ revolution rose. For amidst all its indelible blights, it stood as one of the last remaining pillars of Arab nationalism – an uneven, complex, and enduring legacy, as well as a continuing banner for regional anti-systemic projects.

Nevertheless, Libya’s refusal to submit to Western diktat marked it out in red as a target for U.S. power, which never forgot the independence of Qadhaffi’s foreign policy, and his moves to set up a polycentric world. It is worth recalling in 1990 that Nelson Mandela stated during a 1990 trip to Libya, “Your readiness to provide us with the facilities of forming an army of liberation indicated your commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.” 38 Willful amnesia and the erasure of history are a requirement for U.S. hegemony. And even amidst decay, from the perspective of U.S. power Qadhaffi represented a memory and incarnated a politics whose faint tracings had to be scrubbed cleanly out of Libya. The sudden and significant break with the system which his colonel’s revolt represented, and later, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, his moves towards uniting Africa against external interference, with massive monetary resources to help do so, are an ineluctable part of why Libya had to be destroyed. Campbell anatomizes that destruction to devastating effect, and traces it back to the imperfect colonel’s revolt itself. The point is clear. Against the rainbow of sectarian interpretations, the fact is that responsibility for the country’s fall must be shared. Campbell has provided an important glimpse into the massive segment of that responsibility most relevant to a U.S. readership: its own. Indeed, counter-intuitively, he perhaps underplays that responsibility. For the deterioration of the Qadhaffi government happened not through purely internal decay, but through processes in which Western financial institutions, corporate organs, universities, and the insistent specter and reality of U.S. violence played a major part. And what is inescapable is this: their ability to do so rests on the inability of Western resistance forces to destroy such mechanisms. 

So, finally, if there was a failure of international solidarity vis-à-vis Libya, it began long ago. It was one which took place in the three decades before the coup d’état, as the world revolution of 1968 ebbed most quickly and with the most harmful effects in the centers of imperial power, as the counter-revolution smashed the anti-systemic movements in the core: the student movement, the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers. It occurred as internationalism became a shadow, a wisp, a deprecated memory, a process that also occurred through the negligence of those whose nominal task was to tend the flame. To stand to the side of that ebb tide and, from Northern capitals, to berate global South governments for their sins, is to miss the fundamental responsibility of Western power in creating the atmosphere for the sin. And it is to forget, too, that solidarity is not a sentiment. Internationalism and interventionism are diametrical opposites. Solidarity starts from reckoning with location. In the words of Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, this is a politics, a “Marxism [which] consists of a more committed internationalism, which insists on the substantive, not cosmetic, dissolution of hierarchies among nations and proletariats in the struggle against capital.” 39

Programmatically, this means first and foremost constraining the maneuvers of the governments of the core. The failure to do so is indeed part of the process of global counter-revolution which took place from the mid-1970s onwards. For if it was revolution which painted an indelible target on Qadhaffi’s Libya, it was counter-revolution which weakened it enough to ensure the success of its 2011 targeting, an enterprise of weaponized sectarian militia, the Gulf states, the United States, and finally those too many to list who gave it ideological cover or demobilized opposition to that brutal war. This process, occurring on a stage crafted by imperialist power, is utterly central – indeed, inescapable – to any understanding of the tragedy now cascading daily across what used to be the state of Libya. 


1 Horace Campbell, Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya: lessons for Africa in the forging of African unity (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).
2 Ruth First, Libya: The Elusive Revolution (London: Penguin, 1974).
3 Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “Charisma, revolution, and state formation: Qaddafi and Libya,” Third World Quarterly 6, no. 1 (January 1984): 59–73, 62.
4 Ronald Bruce St. John, “The Changing Libyan Economy: Causes and Consequences,” Middle East Journal 62, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 75–91, 77.
5 Álvaro García Linera, “Once Again on So-called ‘Extractivism,’Monthly Review Online, April 29, 2013.
6 Dirk Vandewalle, “Qadhafi’s ‘Perestroika’: Economic and Political Liberalization in Libya,” Middle East Journal 45, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 216–31, 230.
7 Memorandum from Robert B. Oakley of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft), Washington, July 7, 1975, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume E–9, Part 1, Documents on North Africa, 1973–1976.
8 Ibid.
9 John Blair, The Control of Oil (New York: Vintage, 1978), 229.
10 Campbell, Global NATO, 48.
11 Ibid, 48.
12 Ibid, 52.
13 Ibid, 51.
14 Ibid, 113.
15 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1993), 101.
16 Campbell, Global NATO, 53.
17 Ibid, 61.
18 Ibid, 62.
19 Ibid, 256.
20 Ibid, 256.
21 Ibid, 73.
22 Wolfram Lacher, “Families, Tribes and Cities in the Libyan Revolution,” Middle East Policy Council 18, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 140–54.
23 Maximilian Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Chicago: Baraka Books, 2013).
24 Campbell, Global NATO, 32.
25 Lacher, “Families.”
26 Ibid.
27 Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1980), 19.
28 Ibid, 20.
29 Mohamed Eljarh, “Qaddafi Supporters Reemerge in a Disillusioned Libya,” Foreign Policy, August 11 2015.
30 Campbell, Global NATO, 73.
31 Ryan Lizza, “Leading from Behind,” The New Yorker, April 26, 2011.
32 Campbell, Global NATO, 147.
33 Ibid, 164.
34 For an example of this tendency, see Perry Anderson’s “Jottings on the Conjuncture”: “The Middle East is the one part of the world where the US political system, as presently constituted, cannot act according to a rational calculus of national interest, because it is inhabited by another, supervening interest. For its entire position in the Arab—and by extension Muslim—world is compromised by its massive, ostentatious support for Israel.” Perry Anderson, “Jottings on the Conjuncture,” New Left Review 2, no. 48 (November–December 2007): 5–37, 4.
35 For an example of this, see Vijay Prashad: “Instead, in both cases [Libya and Iraq], the West and their allies prosecuted a complete victory - which always ends in complete disaster,”  in “The Detritus of Regime Change,” The New Arab, October 28, 2015.
36 This perspective appears to be so common that few even take the time to make the argument explicitly.
37 Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Great Expansion: The Incorporation of Vast New Zones into the Capitalist World Economy (c. 1750-1850),” Studies in History  4, no. 1–2 (February 1988): 85–156, 154.
38 Mandela Visits Libya, Thanks Kadafi for Helping Train ANC,” United Press International, May 19, 1990.
39 Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, “The Zimbabwe Question and the Two Lefts,” Historical Materialism 15, no. 3 (2007): 171–204, 173.

Author of the article

is an editor at Jadaliyya and Viewpoint and a member of the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network.