Bonfire Of The Vanities
by Gwydion M. Williams
The world after 9/11, as foreseen at the end of 2001
- Limited-Sovereignty Globalisation
- Liberalism From Cromwell to Lloyd George
- G8—Political Pyramids
- From Russia With Wrath?
- The Fall Of The Towers
- Star Wars After September 11th
- Punk Capitalism
- Cash Crusaders
- Globalised Islam
- Fukuyama Off
- How The World Was Won
Two types of extremism collided on that Manhattan morning on September 11th. Bush, Blair and bin Laden might all wish us to chose between their alternatives. But there are many other paths that could and should be followed.
The influence of the USA has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. There is still time for the USA to switch back to the UN framework of agreed International Law, rather than each US president making it up as he goes along. If this does not happen, then the present fight with bin Laden and the Taliban will be just a beginning.
Fighting terrorism with terrorism will brutalise the whole world. There were several other ways for the USA to get at bin Laden, and other methods whereby they might have destroyed the Taliban without going back to the bad old tactics of ‘carpet bombing’.
The late Commander Abdul Haq, the most important leader of anti-Taliban opposition among Afghans of Pashtun nationality, gave an interview to Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a few days before the Taliban caught and executed him:
I am not sure that the air campaign will work, at least as it is going on now. Before the attacks started, the Taliban’s people were very nervous, and their support in the population was very low. Everyone was afraid. But once the bombing started, people began to say, “Well, it’s not so bad. We have known worse. We can stand it.”…
We have been trying to create a revolt within the Taliban, but the US just hasn’t given us the chance. They seem to have been determined to attack, even if someone came up with the best proposal in the world to avoid this. This has been a big setback for me. So my view is that the US should keep up the pressure, above all with money, but should not bomb…
But the problem is that it’s impossible to find anyone beneath the level of the President who is willing to take responsibility for a decision…
But the US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose. And we don’t like that. Because Afghans are now being made to suffer for these Arab fanatics, but we all know who brought these Arabs to Afghanistan in the 1980s, armed them and gave them a base. It was the Americans and the CIA. And the Americans who did this all got medals and good careers, while all these years Afghans suffered from these Arabs and their allies. (http://www.ceip.org/files/Publications/lievendispatch-haq.asp?from=pubdate)
Willingness to die for their faith had carried the original Muslims from a couple of small desert towns to a global empire, and then on to decay and control by secular regimes. Empires like the Ottoman Turks and the Moguls of India were a hybrid of Islamic and Nomadic-Aristocratic values, and kept their clerics under firm control.
Mass slaughter is supposed to be contrary to Islamic tradition—did anyone tell Tamerlane? But Tamerlane left nothing permanent, while other Islamic states did give good government to diverse peoples. Eighteenth century Europeans of the Enlightenment admired the Ottoman Empire and other non-Christian realms. Adam Smith said that China was richer than any part of Europe, was impressed by Moghul India even as contemporaries like Clive were taking it over.
Western Imperialism knocked over the secular controls in Islamic states, left the religious authorities free-wheeling. And in the Cold War, the West’s short-term calculations led them to favour Islamic opposition to secular regimes. Without thought as to what this particular djinn would do once let out of the bottle of traditional Islamic controls.
The spectacular collapse of the Twin Towers showed the potential of the forces that Western politicians had casually released. Proud warriors whom the West casually brushed aside when they ceased to be useful: Afghans and their Arab allies reckon they were dumped and cheated after having done the West an immense service by helping discredit and demoralise the Soviet system.
The culture that produced bin Laden is the United States of America. As a favoured son in a rich Yemeni family flourishing in Saudi Arabia, he was one thing. As a CIA ally in Afghanistan he became something else. Unready to be treated as ‘war surplus’ when the USA no longer needed his kind.
It’s called an assault on democracy. True of the Oklahoma bombing, certainly. Even the IRA bombings by some people’s definitions. But bin Laden comes from Saudi Arabia, where a US-supported Royal family treats the country as a personal possession.
The attack is not on how the US governs itself, but on what it does to other countries. This includes knocking down democratic regimes when it suited them—coups in Greece and Chile, coup and mass murder in Indonesia, threats of a coup in Italy if the Communists had ever been included. And with the Cold War over, the USA’s ‘Cash Crusaders’ have destabilised a lot of place. They even tried unsuccessfully to replace a successful secular regime in pluralist Malaysia with a variant of Islamic extremism that was willing to accommodate Globalisation.
The media condemn the hijackers lack of concern for human life. But the hijacker’s actions were a logical consequence of literal-minded belief in the visible world as a mere preparation for an Afterlife of eternal damnation or eternal blessedness. In their eyes, the busy financial dealers of the World Trade Centre were all already doomed to hell, unless the imminence of death produced last-minute repentance.
In the West, the idea of the world as a mere preparation for an eternal Afterlife is voiced as pious commonplaces, and then ignored. Priests and preachers including the ‘Fundamentalists’ are almost all obedient little running dogs of their secular masters. They fall over themselves to declare service to Mammon as eminently part of service to God. (As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in Nickled and Dimed, the money-lenders have finally driven Jesus out of the temple.)
Within Islam, older and more genuinely religious views apply. You still find religion treated as a fact of life, rather than a respectable performance along with other social rituals.
It is also a more tolerant religion than Christianity was when it was taken to be a ‘fact of life’. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism accept that other religions have a valid if inferior version of the Divine Vision. Muslims suppose that bad Muslims will go to Hell whereas good Christians etc. will go to some secondary but eminently enjoyable suburb of Heaven. Only Christianity had the tradition of eternal damnation outside of their own faith. Only Christians regarded all other religions and most deviations from their own sect as works of the Devil.
The Christian heritage of intolerance has now been translated into legal and economic forms, a ‘Cash Crusade’. Religion is reduced to a hobby, you can believe what you choose so long as you obey the narrow range of globalised legal and economic forms.
The satirical magazine Private Eye is not just about vulgar jokes, it is also the place to find what the expert journalists know, but are not allowed to say in the mainstream media. ‘Free’ media are dominated by commercial concerns, truth is not often profitable. And from Private Eye, we learn that bin Laden is just the visible expression of something much wider; general Arab and Muslim protest at the swamping of their own culture.
I’ll not call characters like bin Laden and the Taliban ‘Fundamentalists’. It’s probably true that mass terrorism is indeed contrary to Islamic traditions, and that the Taliban interpretation of the Koran is ignorant and extreme. Also the term ‘Fundamentalist’ leads to a false equation with hard-line Puritanism and its allies, who in the USA have been docile servants of business interests all through the 20th century.
It was this fatal misunderstanding—produced by academics more keen on cash and praise than truth—that led the USA to back the Islamists in the first place.
Hard-line religious movements within Islam have little in common with the Mickey-Mouse Puritans of the USA. A US ‘Fundamentalist’ speaking on BBC News chose to see the fall of the Twin Towers as a judgement on the nation for abortion and homosexuality. Not for financial crimes far beyond the crude ‘usury’ the Bible repeatedly condemns. Not for helping impoverish the poor. Nor did I even hear them condemn Hollywood as the global exporter of sex-and-violence culture.
It’s been widely noticed that the extremists know US culture and that their deed was very much in the spirit of Hollywood. You have lots of US films about saving one of their own buildings, and also blowing up some symbol of tyranny, notably the Death Star in the original Star Wars. Once you spread the imagery, you should expect other people to re-write the script with their own selection of heroes and villains. (It seems that crusaders are stock villains in Turkish adventure films. And that Arabs are extending celebrations of the memory of Saladin.)
The ‘moral majority’ in the USA is an absurd spectacle, a bundling of creeds that traditionally saw their current allies as satanic. Oliver Cromwell in bed with the Whore Of Babylon, and with a rabbi to keep them company, along with Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand; really not a very godly gathering. But it is suitably subordinated to the ‘masters of the universe’ at Wall Street. Christianity’s strong tradition of condemning the rich was dumped decades ago; these ‘Fundamentalists’ reserve their venom for the sins of the poor and powerless.
On Tuesday 11th, it was shows that the poor and powerless had some quite effective venom of their own. Angry men from a humiliated and mistreated Arab world gave the USA its very own ‘black September’.
I’ve never supported random attacks on non-combatants and never will. But I condemned it in Baghdad and Belgrade before it came home to Manhattan. And I suspect the motives of the Arab-Muslim hijackers will turn out not very different from that of Timothy McVeigh, the USA’s own home-grown terrorist. All of a piece with the bouts of school shootings and other massacres, including one recently in Switzerland.
We could be entering a situation like 1914, with the world’s tensions turning into something very much worse.
The 1914-18 war was a product of rival versions of Capitalist-Imperialism each trying to invade the other’s economy through global trade. 1939-45 stemmed from the speculation of the 1920s, first Germany’s hyper-inflation and then after a few years stability the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.
Globalisation isn’t working. The present ‘Limited-Sovereignty Globalisation’ is bad for everyone except a small rich ‘Overclass’—maybe 10% of the US population, rather smaller numbers in other nations. Under their rules, we have an unconstrained worldwide economy together with sovereign states responsible for just their own little patch of the world.
Limited-Sovereignty Globalisation is a very bad system But disrupting it randomly is likely to produce something worse.
I intensely dislike the current war being waged on impoverished Afghans. But I’m also scared of the possibility it may end with a visible US defeat, because no US government could accept such a defeat as permanent. An atom bomb on Kabul would be one solution. I doubt we yet have a US government that would do such a think, but a few more mass slaughters of the sort we saw on Sept 11th could change that. Also the various financial, cultural and political elites could move into atomic bunkers and generally divorce themselves from ordinary life.
The violence that ‘mysteriously’ ended all previously bouts of speculative globalisation is not puzzling at all. It’s a predictable response to the tensions built up by subversive, seductive and asocial market. Superior production that does not lead to better happier lives, but instead splits the world into well-paid overstressed people and the impoverished unemployed.
Happiness is typically the difference between what you get and what you were expecting. Bread and cheese is delightful when you were expecting to go hungry, an insult if you were expecting a banquet.
Advertising is the foe of happiness, always raised expectations beyond what can be met. As are gambling and get-rich schemes and many more aspects of modern life.
Bin Lanen’s extreme version of Islam is no sort of answer, and in its pure form it has few supporters. But the USA under Bush Junior could have been expected to try to repeat its dubious successes in Iraq and Yugoslavia—wars against regular modern states. This new war is different, it has raised bin Laden’s status, given stature to an amorphous mass of Islamist protest.
The USA has somehow overlooked the well-known fact that extremists often seek to make a provocation just to get an excess reaction that will win more recruits.
When the dust has settled, the former extremism may be the new political mainstream.
For now, lots of people are offended by the way the USA has set itself above the rest of the world. The UN has repeatedly been bypassed as not compliant enough; instead the USA uses clubs of its own creation: NATO, the G7/G8, whatever comes to hand. Money has been taken from the poor and needy and channelled to the rich, mainly through the medium of places like the World Trade Centre. Of course it gets resented:
Stoked by a lifetime of media portrayals of the United States as an arrogant world cop and a critic of communist China, some believe last week’s attacks served the US right. ‘Sometimes on campus you walk around and get a smirk or a smile’ said Norman Spencer, a New Yorker teaching college English in Beijing…
It wasn’t just a campus matter. Commuters in Beijing laughed at newspaper photos of the burning World Trade Centre towers in New York, and office workers stuck around after hours to grin at repeated news footage after the hijacked airlines hit the skyscrapers along with the Pentagon on September 11. (South China Morning Post, September 19, 2001)
I’ve written before about how the US government has stopped pressuring Red China. They know (even if most Western commentators do not) that there has been a complete turn-around since 1989. The Chinese saw Russia slide into poverty and humiliation, thanks to following the path China almost took in 1989. Ordinary Chinese are often more hostile to the West than their current government—which could also change sharply when President Jiang steps down, as he must do soon.
Western commentators often forget that Jiang was in charge of Shanghai in 1989, and managed to keep control in China’s second city without any bloodshed. But also he has never been able to discard or condemn those who were responsibly, because history suggests that they read the situation correctly.
Elite circles in the USA seem to have decided in the mid-1990s that President Jiang was as cooperative a leader as they were likely to find, and that Western-style democracy applied right now might produce an anti-Western result. For instance that there is a young fellow called Mao Xinyu, New World Mao, the grandson of the Chairman Mao, born 1970. (Described briefly in Jan Wong’s Red China Blues.) I wonder how this currently obscure person would do if China introduced US-style democracy and he stood for President?
French Emperor Napoleon III is commonly called a dictator, but he actually introduced a popular autocratic rule after being elected in 1848 by an overwhelming majority in a free election. He had not previously been taken seriously, his only asset was his name and his position as nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. This was good enough for a dramatic assertion of rural values against Parisian sophistication, ending with Napoleon III dissolving parliament and becoming Emperor..
The trouble with democracy is that it allows a society to assert its own ideas, not just the ideas that sophisticated people were hoping to impose on the vulgar mass. The trouble with ‘laissez-fair’ is that it lives up to its title, almost anything may happen, and not just the things you were hoping for.
The USA under Bush Senior had a chance to reshape the world when the Soviet Union collapsed. It chose to be vengeful and petty, like the victorious powers in World War One—the peace they made at Versailles guaranteed a new World War. People remembered this in the 1940s and made a peace that worked well for decades, despite bitter superpower rivalry. But by the 1990s they had forgotten the lessons of how an actual peace had been made after 1945, with aid and generosity to the defeated.
Since trying to embrace Western values in 1991, Russia has got poorer, much of the rest of the world has suffered, while the USA has visibly flourished.
Bush Junior seems to think that Bush Senior got it just about right, except for failing to finish off Saddam Hussein—a mistake he would not want to make over bin Laden. But where is the proof of bin Laden’s guilt? It may well be that an impartial tribunal would agree he was responsible for the deeds of men who looked to him for guidance and who were probably funded by his agents. But for now, the USA prefers to sit on the evidence and enact a kind of global lynch law in which accusation is the same as proof.
Why does Bush Junior go for a lynch-mob solution, when a reasonably impartial forum might agree that bin Laden was guilty? It’s not a personal failing but typical of the whole US mentality. Built around a sanctified constitution full of 18th century delusions, the USA could not have become a major military and industrial power without evading those restrictions. Perhaps it should have remained a poor-but-happy rural arcadia with minimal government, but it didn’t. And given the way it developed, it became of necessity a law-evading society.
International Law as a real and independent system would be a fine thing. International Law as a cover for arbitrary US actions is something else.
The USA wants International Law to apply to foreigners, but never to US citizens. Nor even to US enemies whose guilt is not wholly clear. The conviction of just one of the Lockerbie suspects was a set-back, but supposing bin Laden turned himself over to some neutral country with an agreement for a fair trial before some tribunal the USA could not fix? It might be his best move, given that we’ve already had the provocative US bombings in Afghanistan.
The USA arouses resentment by pushing its own culture without ever troubling to think about anyone else’s feelings or traditions. Bush actually began by calling it this crusade, this war on terrorism (Washington Post 17 Sept 2001), which isn’t the best way to keep Muslim allies on board. I’d not expect Bush Junior to reflect, but doesn’t anyone around him realise that the world has changed since the 1950s?
Despite the change of vocabulary, it is a crusade, not religious but cultural, and with the long-term aim of ridding the world of anything un-American. A gutted and trivialised Islam might have a place: Islam as understood by most of its believers would not.
The USA has used its power to act as ‘global boss’. Not a proper Empire, empires do accept duties towards those they rule. But the USA demands that the rest of the world lay itself open to US influence as the price of being allowed to participate in world trade. And increasingly the USA insists that everyone be made vulnerable to financial speculation and gambling of the sort that damaged the Asian Tigers in the 1990s, and which has aroused resentment even in the USA.
When I speak of a ‘bonfire of the vanities’, I’m thinking more of Savonarola than Tom Wolfe. Well before Luther, this Dominican preacher was demanding reform within the Catholic Church, but also imposing a harshness that later Puritans repeated.
‘Holy War’ was imported into Latin Christian tradition from Islam, replacing the older and more genuine Christian tradition of war being sinful even for a good cause. The Crusades were an unjustified assault by a barbaric and ignorant Europe on a sophisticated Muslim world. Islamic societies had been heading in the direction of something like modern science and industry. In an article called Crusaders And Other Barbarians (Problems No 65), I went into some details of this process. Not of course with any notion that it would suddenly become relevant to modern politics, but as part of a general re-thinking of where and why the modern world emerged.
The Islamic Golden Age ended thanks to the ‘double whammy’ of Christian Crusaders followed after a couple of centuries by Mongol hoards—a mix of Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Pagan, all sharing an enthusiasm for plundering Muslim wealth. Had Egypt’s Muslim army lost the key battle of Ain Jalut (Goliath Spring), then a very different future might have emerged. Had a Christianised Mongol Empire kept open the quickest and easiest route to the Spice Islands, would even Columbus have wished to try going the long way round?
Europe’s development of science, industry and world empires occurred after Columbus’s accidental discovery of a New World and the vast enrichment of Europe that resulted. Not just precious metals, but also new intercontinental trade with West African slaves shipped over to grow tropical products after the Native Americans had fled or been worked to death in the Caribbean. And Europe was able to use the gold and silver of the New World to trade with sophisticated Asian cultures that had little need for most European goods.
While modernising, Europe also went through successive bouts of religious extremism, followed by episodes of tolerance and scepticism. 18th century Europe was dominated by Enlightenment values, admiring some foreign ways. But the 19th century saw a ‘counter-Enlightenment’, with rulers encouraging religious views that they privately despised because they were scared of the radical forces released by the French Revolution. There was also a determined effort to impose this narrow Christianity on the rest of the world.
The last three decades look like a repeat of the 1790s to 1810s. The Soviet Union collapsed as spectacularly as Napoleonic France did, but the world has not gone back to being what it was. And cynical rulers who raised up religious enthusiasts are surprised to find that they are rather hard to control.
No society has functioned for long without a religion or state-cult. And in European history, it was often the religious extremists who were also Europe’s big achievers. Catholics from Spain and Portugal going right round the globe and waging crusades on anyone too weak to fight them off. Puritans following and wrecking Catholic hopes for wider conquests. But these same Puritans also making the most successful settlements in North America, and playing a large role in Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
No society has ever grown strong and modern without religious extremists who do things their milder descendants would sooner not talk about. Nor is any dynamic society safe from another outbreak, especially if its own ideology is shallow or obviously dishonest. A mature and settled society will have found a ways to divert religious enthusiasts into harmless and sometimes useful roles. But the glib ‘Punk Capitalism’ that developed in the 1970s and 1980s is neither settled nor mature
No society has ever modernised itself without a period of harsh authoritarian rule. England lost most of its traditional aristocrats in the mutual slaughter of the Wars Of The Roses. The harsh rule of Henry 7th and Henry 8th was acceptable to the newly risen gentry who had unexpectedly inherited. This achievement was well consolidated by Queen Elizabeth.
When the Stuart kings made a mess of the Tudor heritage, Oliver Cromwell gave another period of successful authoritarian rule. His personal memory was reviled at the Restoration, but most of what the Commonwealth had created was retained by the new monarchy. And without the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland—so drastic and brutal that Ireland stayed quiet during the later revolts by Highland Scots—the 18th century British Empire would not have been possible.
English people nowadays prefer to distance themselves from Cromwellian enthusiasts like Praise-god Barebone, the man who gave his name to ‘Barebones Parliament’. They were ancestral, culturally as well as biologically, but this is an embarrassment. The matter is hushed up, and no comparisons are ever drawn with other societies being painfully remoulded by cultural and religious enthusiasts.
The USA, though it contains rather more people who keep alive the heritage of Praise-god Barebone, also forgets that it began with citizens with a British heritage of being processed into a particular sort of person. Secular US opinion supposes that their way of life arose from the hazy generalities of the Constitution. Many secular Americans see religion as an irrational interference with ‘self-evident truths’, even though these ‘truths’ are a heritage from Cromwellian times.
Without going too far, how are you ever going to know what your limits are? I suppose that if the Islamic Golden Age had continued, we might have had Muslims with the equivalent of 19th century weaponry intervening to protect the nice moderate King Charles 1st from the fanatical ‘Christianists’ of the New Model Army. But whether British culture could then have flourished, having been prevented from working out its own solutions, is much more moot.
In actual British history, the anti-Christian historian David Hume describes how the Puritan enthusiasts rejected names like Henry, Edward, Anthony and William, regarded as heathenish. Even New Testament names like John and Peter were too secular and they took Old Testament alternatives like Hezekiah, Habakkuk and Joshua. Some chose a whole godly sentence; Praise-god Barebone had a brother called ‘If Christ had not died for you, you have been damned Barebone’, called Damned Barebone for short. And a jury from that time was said to have included Redeemed Compton of Battle, Be Faithful Joiner, Faint Not Hewit, Fly Debate Roberts, God Reward Smart of Fivehurst, Fight the good Fight White, More Fruit Fowler, Hope for Bending, Earth Adams, Graceful Harding, Called Lower, Weep not Biling, Kill Sin Pimple and Meek Brewer. (David Hume, History Of England, Chapter LXI footnotes.)
By chance, I took Hume’s History with me on a trip to China in 1997. I’ve never seen anyone try to view Mao’s Liberation War and later Cultural Revolution in parallel with England’s own Civil War and intense ideology under the Commonwealth: it would be fruitful, but is beyond the scope of this article. For now, I will repeat that English ‘common sense’ was a product of forces that England now sees as alien.
Common sense as of 2001 is also not what it was 20 years ago, or 50 years ago. It’s predictable that in 20 years it will be something else again. And there is a struggle going on right now to determine what it will be, with the ‘certainties’ of the 1990s suddenly in doubt.
I borrowed the title of this article from Tom Wolfe’s own crib from Savonarola. And that’s all I need from him: the man’s a glib fool, selecting bond traders as his example of iniquity, one of the few areas of the new finance that does no harm. They are condemned because they are not concerned with the original raising of the money, nor spending it: this is like criticising a grocery store on the ground that people don’t grow their food there, nor go there to eat it. Bond trading is as legitimate as bonds themselves, which differ from regular debts in that they are intended to be tradable, so why not specialists in such trade?
The damaging side of ‘Money-mongering’ is not specialist traders in reputable bonds. It lies rather in obscenities like ‘junk bonds’, asset-stripping take-overs, currency speculation and derivatives. The Money-mongers have turned previously safe area of finance into a gigantic casino.
All of this and much else, including lowly catering workers and uninvolved tourists, were mingled in the World Trade Centre that Tuesday morning. But, if the USA can be glib about ‘collateral damage’ when foreigners are bombed, should we be surprised that their enemies are just as casual?
As many commentators have noted, the death of tens of thousands of lower-status people does not receive anything like the same attention. True, it was the single biggest man-made disaster since regular television broadcasting began. (Not since the invention of television, as someone claimed: the Nazis had it at their 1936 Olympics, a point Carl Sagan reminded us of in his novel Contact.) It was a well-documented horror, even so. But Arabs who’d seen their own suffering marginalised by the West were not likely to be sympathetic.
It’s also a move in the wider war of cultures, viewpoints within the West as well as protests by the non-Western world. Consider the following:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)… The most improper job of any man, even saints … is bossing other men.. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity… There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’ it may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.
These terrorist sentiments come from J R R Tolkien, author of Lord Of The Rings (Letter 52, written in 1943). He felt that the war against Fascism had been used as an excuse to strengthen all that was wrong with Western society. Not, indeed, that he had any regard for the Nazi alternative: I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense… I have in this War a burning private grudge … against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. (Letter 45, 1941)
Britain and America were as guilty as the Nazis in blurring the hard-won distinction between military and civilian targets. Rules of war had been painfully established in the 18th century. Wars were to be fought between rival professional armies and navies, instead of the mass slaughters of whole populations as had occurred in the 17th century Wars Of Religion. Prisoners need give only their name, rank and number rather than be tortured for their valuable knowledge. In as far as warfare could be decent, civilised and limited, that was what it became. For a time.
Britain was not the only power that de-civilised warfare, but Britain’s record is very far from clean. When Europe’s regular armies were no match for Napoleon, Britain funded and encouraged irregular warfare, especially the original ‘guerrillas’ in Spain. Britain chose to impose a total blockade on Germany in World War One, knowing that this was going to produce mass starvation. Its decision to bomb open cities in World War Two would have happened even if the Nazis had not pioneered the tactic at Guernica. Britain also funded and support Partisan Warfare all across Europe, legitimising it and producing a damaging and brutalising effect on the whole society.
In a similar spirit, the USA funded and supported the Islamic extremists throughout the Arab world as a counter to left-wing secular regimes that gave a non-religious sense of dignity to their people. The exact relationship that once existed between bin Laden and the CIA remains disputed. But no one doubts that the USA played a big part in encouraging Islamic extremism, and in funding and arming Arabs to fight the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan.
The USA created the social milieu within which bin Laden operates. A milieu which will continue even if they kill him and overthrow the Taliban regime. There is a widespread believe among the experts that the bin Laden movement is not coordinated, just a collection of individuals inspired by him. Which would mean he’d be more dangerous dead than alive.
The Taliban are different, an outgrowth of Pashtun national consciousness. An outgrowth that occurred because the stable existence of Afghanistan was disrupted by Cold-War games and by US neglect after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops.
The Taliban have failed to bridge the gap between Pashtun national consciousness and the minority peoples, notably the Tajiks who dominate the ‘Northern Alliance’. In modern times, Islam has usually failed to act as a bridge between the different peoples—in the Third World only Marxism had ever managed it, and even Marxism failed to deal with Afghan diversity and lawlessness. But, for Pashtuns at least, the Taliban offered a way out of the total anarchy that followed the fall of a pro-Soviet government.
The Taliban have not wanted more than to run Afghanistan their own way. Their overthrow will lead to a flood of refugee supporters with good reason to hate the USA. A war will globalize their viewpoint
The USA continues its standard tactics of being a ‘rogue superpower’. Some of them now are talking about a ‘Jacksonian’ solution:
The terrorists who attacked the United States last Tuesday have made the gravest blunder any human being possibly could commit. They have trampled out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; they soon will find that they have loosed the fateful lightning of a terrible, swift sword. It hasn’t lately been fashionable to say so, but when their blood is up, Americans are the fiercest warriors on earth…
Without even counting the casualties from the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American bombs are estimated to have killed 900,000 Japanese civilians in the last five months of World War II… Fighting wars ruthlessly, and targeting civilian as well as military targets, is part of what I call Jacksonianism. Called Sharp Knife by the southern Indians he crushed, Andrew Jackson acted quickly and decisively to defend the national interest and prestige. As a general, he crossed international frontiers to capture and hang British subjects inciting American Indians to rebel from the presumed safety of Spanish Florida. As president, he sent the U.S. Navy to Sumatra…
Jacksonians believe with Douglas MacArthur that there is no substitute for victory. ‘Unconditional surrender’ is what Jacksonians want from an enemy, and unconditional surrender—or extermination—are the only outcomes they will accept. (Braced for Jacksonian Ruthlessness, By Walter Russell Mead, Washington Post, September 17, 2001)
The various US wars against Native Americans were limited wars against a weak foe, small in numbers and divided by language and culture. Wars in Asia involve bumping up against cultures that were vigorous and old long before there was a distinct English identity, never mind the brash US-Anglo offshoot.
Andrew Jackson was also noted as the victor of the Battle Of New Orleans against the British Empire. But that War of 1812, begun by the USA at a time when Napoleon seemed unshakably supreme in Europe, was a blunder that nearly led to the extinction of the young republic. The attempt to conquer Canada failed, nor did the USA manage to change the iniquitous maritime law under which the British Navy would seize American sailors of British origin, claiming them as deserters.
After Napoleon’s decisive defeat in 1814, there were many in Britain who wanted to snuff out the source of Republicanism, repudiate the 1783 treaty which recognised US independence. It was fortunate for the future of democracy that the Duke of Wellington was no ‘Jacksonian’ but a proper Tory, inclined to caution where there was no necessity for action.
Wellington knew that it is always very possible to wreck a system by too much enthusiasm in its defence. A lesson that later leaders have failed to learn.
Wellington wisely refused to accept command in North America, and peace was made instead. This had the added benefit that the Duke and much of his army were on hand to deal with Napoleon’s last fling that ended at Waterloo. But the victors of 1814 could eventually have crushed both the USA and a revived Napoleonic France, and even re-conquered Spain’s rebellious New World colonies, had that been their aim. Instead they were authentic conservatives, and the balance they established lasted for decades
It was lucky for the USA that some leading British politicians had a heritage in the Old Whigs, influenced by Edmund Burke who had always seen the American Revolution as justified. And their general policy was of conciliation and forgiveness, France was treated as a friend once the Napoleonic regime was gone, just as Germany after 1945 was treated as a friend and ally. It is this rather than Jacksonian ruthlessness that makes for authentic success in global politics.
The USA since the 1980s has been run for the benefit of some 10% of US citizens, who have flourished excessively while 90% of their fellow-citizens languish at 1970s levels of income. Nowhere else—not even Thatcherite Britain—can such an unfair system be found.
If you consider the world as a whole, note the gap between rich and poor nations, the USA has managed to create a similar pattern wherever it has been able to beat down local resistance.
(All this is detailed in the September issue of Labour & Trade Union Review. Some global equalisation has occurred in the 1980s and 1990, but mainly thanks to the two very different semi-capitalist systems of China and India. Both are under pressure to adapt to Punk-Capitalist norms, and either or both might succumb.)
The USA has been able to evade or ignore the UN, which cannot be relied upon to serve the interests of the US Overclass. Instead they use a set of US-defined and US-dominated clubs: the IMF, NATO, NAFTA, APEC, the World Bank, but above all the G7/G8.
We need to study our new masters, so I will quote at length from an official US account:
Member countries of the Group of Seven (G-7) are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, which together account for about two-thirds of the world’s economic output.
The leaders of these largest industrialized democracies have met annually since 1975 to discuss major economic and political issues. The participants at the first meeting in Rambouillet, France in November 1975 were France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Canada joined at the 1976 Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico Summit, and the group came to be known as the G-7. Ever since, the site of the yearly Summit of these nations’ leaders has rotated among the seven countries. Since 1977, the President of the European Commission has also been represented at the Summit table.
The G-7 nations plus Russia comprise the Group of Eight (G-8). Russia began to participate in a portion of the meetings at the 1994 G-7 Summit in Naples and officially became the eighth member at the 1997 Denver, Colorado, “Summit of the Eight.” While Russia is a G-8 member, it does not participate in all financial and economic discussions, which continue to be conducted by the G-7.
G-7 Finance Ministers meet four times a year to review developments in their economies and the world economy and to develop common approaches on international economic and financial policy issues.
The G-7 Central Bank Governors join the Finance Ministers at three of these meetings: the first held in January or February, and the gatherings just before both the International Monetary Fund(IMF)/World Bank meetings, which are usually in April and in September.” (http://usinfo.state.gov/topical/econ/group8/summit01/g8bkgrd.htm)
The G7 have a combined population of some 700 million, about 12% of the world population. As the G8, it’s still no more than 14%. This rich minority try to dominate the rest of the world, including poor democracies like India.
G8 membership is arbitrary, based on a mix of size, wealth and Western-style democracy. Canada, with a total GDP of 760 billion dollars, is not obviously more fitting that Spain with a GDP of 651 billion. Nor is there any just reason to exclude Brazil (715 billion), South Korea (515 billion) or India (496 billion). (All figures from The World In 2001, Economist Publications)
Equal arbitrariness is shown by the case of Russia, with a shrunken GDP of 252 billion dollars after ten years of destructive ‘reforms’, but also nuclear weapons, a big army and raw materials that the West needs. And since it’s a self-selecting club, how can one complain?
Neither Muslim culture and Hindu culture are represented. Nor Chinese or any other Asian culture except Japan. Spanish-speaking nations are collectively more numerous than English-speaking nations, but have no role in the G7/G8 except very marginally though the President of the European Commission. Of course Latin America has broadly accepted its status as the USA’s back yard, with an extended ‘free trade agreement’ that lacks the collective democracy and open borders that the European Union offers to its members.
The G7/G8 embodies the USA’s unofficial view of the world as pyramid of power. New York and Washington sit at the top, the rest of white USA second, the third level is shared by non-white US citizens and white Europeans, along with Israelis. Below these come places like Japan and China, war with Japan was seriously contemplated in the early 1990s when it looked like they’d soon be the richest nation in the world. But Japanese in a more modest role are acceptable, as are other non-white peoples each in their proper pyramidical place, with Arabs and Muslims on maybe the 8th or 9th tier.
An attack by the Arab-Muslim 8th tier on a semi-sacred site on the top tier is very shocking, of course. NATO aircraft bombing Belgrade was one thing, an awkward case since it was white Christian Europeans, but a big press built-up made ‘humanitarian bombing’ acceptable. Terror can and does succeed; the Kosovo war would have failed if it had kept to its official terms, the Serb army was basically undamaged. But a pattern of terrorist attacks on Serb civilians did the trick.
What happened on September 11th was in line with what the USA has been promoting all round the world over the last ten years. It does not suddenly become something different when high-status civilians are hit rather than civilians among the poor and weak. (US citizens occasionally dying of anthrax is bigger news than civilian Afghans regularly killed by the ‘authorised terrorism’ of American bombing.)
Rhetorical declarations that the USA’s will remains unbroken are maybe a bit to shrill to be credible. There are signs of deep trauma, and the ‘long result’ remains uncertain.
The IRA’s Brighton bombing back in 1984 broke the will of Norman Tebbit; he came close to death, his wife was left permanently injured and Tebbit later withdrew from serious politics. The one man who could have continued the Thatcherite agenda has been reduced to malignant sniping from the sidelines. Thatcher too got knocked off course, opting for an Anglo-Irish agreement that conceded that Ulster was not really British.
The mainstream IRA can congratulate themselves on a terrorist job well done, and terrorist aims imposed on Britain with considerable US pressure in favour of the Irish Nationalist cause. The matter has almost been forgotten now, except perhaps by other terrorists when they assess their chances of eventual success.
Of course from a US viewpoint, British and Irish are on the same level of the pyramid and thus the US role is to mediate, not punish.
Was September 11th a purely Muslim operation? It seemed much too efficient and effective. Muslims in modern times have managed isolated acts of courage and hate, yes. But two aircraft that came in separately, managed to hit the two towers within a few minutes of each other. Struck at just the right height to ensure that the towers would collapse.
People talk of hidden backers, bin Laden plus X. Israeli intelligence are among those who’d reached this conclusion. But who was the ‘X’ in the equation of death?
Two interesting events happened on the Sunday before the bombing. The President of Belarus was declared victor by an improbable landslide. Western journalists had conceded he’d probably be re-elected by the votes of the countryside and the poor: just not on the first round. This foolish landslide allowed the West to declare the election invalid and raised the possibility of some sort of outside pressure or intervention.
The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, looked certain to tighten his dictatorial grip on power last night in a controversial election likely to be deemed illegitimate by the West, deepening the international isolation of the most hardline regime in Europe. (Guardian, 10th September.)
Belarus is on the very edge of an arc of instability, a new east-west frontier stretching across the eastern fringes of Europe, from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the south to Kaliningrad in the north. These weak countries and regions face a difficult choice. One option is to align themselves with the West, and build pluralist, multi-ethnic institutions that can operate in the tough conditions of a market economy. The other is to turn away from the European Union as it expands eastward, and back to the Russian bloc that existed for much of the 20th century.” (Times leading article, 10th September.)
From Sunday 9th to Tuesday 11th, Belarus was the prime target for the next NATO intervention. Then suddenly, the US was hit hard by Muslim terrorism. Russian and Central Asian support was needed, the whole world balance changed utterly. Coincidence?
Sunday also saw the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the most notable leader in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Killed by two North Africans who posed as journalists and detonated explosives packed into a video camera. (They had apparently been waiting for him several days, it should also be noted.)
We are told now that a widespread attack on the increasingly unpopular Taliban had been considered for months. And Masood would certainly have been important in it. As BBC Online reported back on the 5th April:
The commander of the Afghan opposition, Ahmed Shah Masood, is due to meet members of the European Parliament at Strasbourg in France… The visit is a major propaganda coup for the Afghan opposition and has infuriated the ruling Taliban militia… It has certainly been a significant boost to opposition morale that might also persuade the Taliban of the need to do more to extinguish this source of annoyance to their regime.
Masood must have known he was a target. Afghans apparently regard suicide attacks as un-Islamic, but it was well known that the Taliban via bin Laden was allied to Muslims who thought otherwise. It is indeed widely supposed that the successful attack on Masood was some sort of signal or down-payment. The hijackers’ plans had been laid weeks ahead, but until they started their hijacks on Tuesday they were committed to nothing and had attracted little attention. So one wonders why Masood’s enemies suddenly got lucky.
Now consider Belarus. President Lukashenko had held the old system together while it disintegrated elsewhere. Democratically elected, he was at first accepted as a natural choice. Much like the ex-Communists in Poland who were recently returned to power in an election that also extinguished ‘Solidarity’ as a political force. But the Polish ex-Communists want to bring Poland into the European Community at the expense of its peasantry and traditionalists. They appear to have moved smoothly from obediently serving Leninist dictatorship to nicely serving the new brand of Globalisation.
Belarus as it is now, is not wanted in the European Community. But they are expected to wait quietly and not make other arrangements with their neighbours. Doubtful ballots—quite acceptable in Florida or Chicago—and not allowable in misbehaving nations.
The Moldovan President, Vladimir Voronin, who is visiting Moscow, has said that Russia and Moldova are at the final stage of preparations for a basic political treaty. Speaking at a news conference, he said Moldova could now take part in the proposed union between Russia and Belarus as an observer. Mr Voronin did not rule out Moldova’s accession to the European Union but said it could not join NATO because it was constitutionally a neutral state. (BBC World Service at BBC Online, April 17th)
Senior security officials from former Soviet republics have been meeting in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, to discuss the fight against political violence in the region. The countries taking part — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan — are all members of the collective security treaty of the CIS. The main focus has been on combating separatism in Chechnya and Islamic violence in Central Asia — and setting up a rapid reaction force. (Ibid., April 26th)
Iraq and Belarus have signed an accord on economic cooperation and agreed to set up air links between the two countries. . a large delegation of Belarussian officials and businessmen, met President Saddam Hussein on Saturday and delivered a message from his counterpart Alexander Lukashenko. (Ibid., 1st May)
The Communists in Moldova have been holding their annual congress — the first since coming to power in the recent elections. The new president of the country, Vladimir Voronin, told delegates his goal was what he called modern socialism. He’s also spoken of his desire to forge closer links with Russia and Belarus. Moldova is the first former Soviet republic to elect a Communist leadership to office through free and fair elections. (Ibid., 21st April)
President Lukashenko has been under pressure from the European Union to ensure the elections will be free and fair; he has frequently been criticised in the West for his human rights record, but correspondents say Mr Lukashenko still has broad popular appeal amongst the Belarus electorate. (Ibid., 14th June)
Despite the strong evidence that an unfair campaign may have boosted Mr Lukashenko’s score, even his opponents concede that he does enjoy a strong base of genuine support, especially among the rural and elderly population.
He has resisted economic reforms, so that 80 per cent of the Belarus economy is still in state hands. Wages average less than $100 a month. But unemployment is low, and public-sector wages and pensions are paid on time. Supporters of Mr Lukashenko contrast this with the example of Russia next door, where economic reform brought much greater uncertainty for the poor in the 1990s, and long delays in wage and pension payments.
Mr Lukashenko’s main policy goal for Belarus looks sure to be continued re-integration with Russia. The two countries signed a largely symbolic treaty of political union in 1996. They plan a monetary union in 2005.
Mr Lukashenko’s victory, if confirmed, will present a policy dilemma for the West. The US has described Belarus as the “lone outlaw” in Europe. European diplomats make clear their dismay at its economic and political decay. But with Mr Lukashenko turning increasingly to Russia for economic and political support, the West has relatively little leverage at its disposal. (Financial Times, 10th September.)
Belarus, along with the rest of the former Soviet Union, has a lot of unemployed ex-Security people. People with excellent contacts in ex-Soviet Central Asia, where Masood was receiving a lot of support, and presumably also intelligence data that he trusted. And the example of Serbia showed that Western persistence could and would wear down any regime that dared hold out against the Western model.
Of course bin Lanen’s people would know that all ex-Soviet people were in principle their enemies. But an offer of technical advice against common enemies would have been plausible and acceptable.
Someone must have worked out that even though the Two Towers were designed to survive being hit by an aircraft, an aircraft with enough fuel would cause an intense enough fire to produce a collapse, something that New York’s own Fire Department failed to realise in time. Modern Arabs have tended to fail even with masses of advanced technology, as in the various Arab-Israeli wars. Whereas Russian engineering skill has always been formidable, getting the first men and women into space despite a political system that become ever less coherent under Khrushchev and his successors.
It has been widely reported that there was suspicious trading just before the disaster, trading that might have yielded a gigantic profit to anyone who knew in advance. Bin Laden’s people, it is supposed. Or perhaps rich Muslim extremists for whom bin Laden in his mountain retreat is happy to act as figurehead. But beyond all that, were there also shadowy Russian or Belorussian interests that got advanced notice as part of some covert and ruthless deal?
People now see the 1993 ground-based bomb at the World Trade Centre as a kind of trial run. But at the time, I thought of Slavonic connections. Considering the wars in dismembered Yugoslavia, and the reluctance of the USA to bomb Serbs as they had bombed non-white peoples, I hypothesised:
Some KGB team who had no love for either Muslims or Americans. The CIA could then have been told—look, we have given you a scapegoat, but actually we did it, and will do a lot more if you touch our Serb brothers. (Labour & Trade Union Review, Newsnotes, July-August 1993)
I’d say we’re dealing with people who’re not at all worried by a drift into a serious Third World War—as distinct from the grossly unequal contest that is now occurring. Their view may be similar to Chairman Mao’s logic: socialism had got stronger after the previous two world wars and might triumph after a third.
Supposing US intelligence know something of this ex-Soviet connection, what do they do about it? It is their own game being played back at them, and those ex-Soviet elements willing to work with the USA still feel disgruntled at the way they were treated in the 1990s. If the US were to start blaming ex-Soviet elements rather than Arabs and Afghans, that could be a short path to a nuclear war.
I am of course making guesses on the basis of web downloads. I have never been to Russia, and am not an expert on its modern history or security units. Back in 1993, I had other concerns—in particular the need to my book about Adam Smith—so I forgot the issue. I was one of those who protested at the bombing of Serbian civilians and the annexation of Kosovo, but before September 11th, I never did think to make the connection.
With hindsight, though, perhaps someone in ex-Soviet circles boasted after 1993 that they knew a much better way to attack the World Trade Centre. And let it not be forgotten, the whole matter of mass terrorism first came home to the USA through super-patriot Timothy McVeigh, an ex-soldier offended by the way the Gulf War had been handled by Bush Senior. McVeigh’s model was a right-wing work called The Turner Diaries, and we’re told it also features a hijacked plane crashing into the Pentagon.
Of course there are other possibilities. But just when I was thinking maybe I should drop the notion, an airliner full of Russian Jews gets destroyed while flying from Israel to Russia. It’s agreed it was a missile fired during a Ukrainian military exercises, but the deaths have been accepted as a tragic accident.
Accidents do happen. But for a runaway missile launched by traditionally anti-Semitic Ukrainians to just happen to hit a plane full of Jews stretches credibility. And if there were some sort of bizarre alliance between Islamists and ex-Soviet conspirators, it would be just the gesture to make at a time when the Islamists were feeling the pressure and wondering if it was such a good deal after all.
No large companies are thought to have had their headquarters in the complex (Financial Times, Sept 12). Some big names have their global headquarters in the nearby World Financial Centre: the World Trade Centre was seven buildings, not just the Two Towers. Finance house Morgan Stanley was the biggest tenant, occupied nearly a quarter of the space in the Two Towers. But did not have their headquarters there—was there some notion it was not the safest place to be?
The buildings had been built to withstand an aircraft collision; their abrupt collapse was a surprise. How could it have happened? And why did the brave and professional New York Fire Department get it so drastically wrong, advising office workers to stay where they were as well as rushing in its own rescuers, most of whom tragically perished.
A US physics professor has calculated the amount of energy released in the hijack attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Frank Moscatelli, from Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, said a rough estimate of the figures involved showed why the Twin Towers never stood a chance. His workings suggest the gravitational potential energy unlocked when all the buildings in the WTC complex came down was about six hundred billion joules. The amount of energy untapped by an atomic bomb like the one that fell on Hiroshima is only a hundred times greater.
Professor Moscatelli said that of the three sources of energy delivered to New York City last Tuesday – the kinetic energy due to the motion of the two aircraft, exploded jet fuel and gravitational potential energy due to the falling building material – the last was the most devastating. “My calculations show that the largest component by far was the latter,” said Professor Moscatelli, a native New Yorker. “This is due to the large mass and height of the towers. Their splendour was their undoing”…
Structural engineers are agreed that once the central steel cores in the WTC towers melted, the buildings would have started to collapse down on themselves. Massive and increasing forces would have been inflicted on even those floors unaffected by the collisions and the fires that followed. (BBC Online, 18th September)
The devastating impacts on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and their subsequent collapse shook the ground with the force of a small earthquake. Scientists have released seismic recordings made at several monitoring stations situated in northeast America. The seismic signals generated by the collapsing north and south towers were much stronger than those from the two airliner impacts. (Ibid, 20th September)
The shocking events of 11 September have prompted a major reassessment of the accepted practices employed in erecting skyscrapers. British and European architects have criticised the current US regulations for ignoring the valuable information that came out of the 1968 Ronan Point tower block disaster in London…
The towers’ central steel spines were weakened by the intense heat from the burning aviation fuel, and eventually gave way when they could no longer support the weight of the floors above the crash zones – that is the accepted analysis. When those upper floors began to fall, they forced everything below them to collapse in a “piledriver” effect. But should the Twin Towers have collapsed so quickly? Architects and engineers have been looking at the events in more detail, asking what actually happened and what lessons could be learned…
According to some experts, the suicide pilots hit the buildings in just the right place to bring about their collapse. The north tower was struck at the 80th floor; the south tower at the 60th. Had the aircraft crashed lower down, around the 30th floor, it is possible that the stronger steel shell at those levels may have prevented collapse. (Ibid, 4th October. Emphasis added)
To Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, professor of structural engineering at the University of California at Berkeley… the girders and beams provide evidence that far from disintegrating on impact, the plane that hit the South Tower penetrated to the building’s core. One beam from the outer part of the building is buckled and twisted but with a sharp grooved line running along it, which Astaneh-Asl believes was caused by the wing of the aircraft slicing through. “There is a very clear line here,” he said today during a news conference. “It looks like a butter knife has gone through it and left a nice clear line. This can only happen if something very fast hits it.”
Even with the hole punched out of it, the column did not fall from the plane’s impact. Instead the extreme heat from burning jet fuel, which reached more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, caused the steel to weaken. When one floor collapsed, its weight collapsed the floors beneath, causing a pancake effect… I do not think the hijackers envisaged that,” said Astaneh-Asl. “I think they hoped to topple the towers one on top of each other and see them fall sideways, perhaps onto the Stock Exchange, which could have resulted in 100,000 casualties rather than 5,000.” (Washington Post, October 6, 2001)
I can’t say what the hijackers were hoping for. But had they just flown the plane into a large building, as they did at the Pentagon, they would have produced a few hundred deaths and nothing like the same terrifying impact. Were they outrageously lucky? Or did they get skilled technical advice from somewhere?
I do also recall that many aspects of science were developed in the Islamic World in its Golden Age, though that was centuries ago. But if the extremists have actually recovered that sort of skill then things are much more serious than is now supposed.
If you can’t defend the Pentagon against a real-world enemy, then what use is Star Wars? George Bush Junior was intent on spending billions in a vain effort to make the USA secure—still is planning it, as far as I know.
A much smaller sum spent on humanitarian aid would win the USA new friends and a much more secure world position. But though this worked in the 1940s and 1950s, it is now seen as a weak and wimpish alternative to warfare, bombing and weapon-building.
Those to whom evil’s done do evil in return said W H Auden in the 1930s. The man himself nipped off to the USA well ahead of the danger. But others who stayed and fought did also take the point seriously. Nazism was a predictable product of Allied abuse of their victory in the 1914-18 war, plus the USA’s casual retreat from responsibility after ensuring German defeat.
People in the 1940s also recalled the much wiser settlement that was made after the Napoleonic Wars—including Britain making a moderate peace with the USA in 1814, when Napoleon was at Elba and it seemed as if the victorious powers could have made any sort of peace they chose. Britain might have chosen to try to reconquer North America, the USA had after all started it and had nursed a foolish ambition to conquer Canada, which most Canadians bitterly resented. But that would have been a formula for endless war, and peace was preferred instead.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91, in part because it had abused its limited victory in the 1970s, when America ran ignominiously from South Vietnam and seemed to be falling apart.
Their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was also a clear signal that they were not just content to hold what they had (which was how some people excused Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968). And while it may have appeared necessary to the Soviet leadership, events were to prove that it was the worst thing they could have done.
All through the 1980s, the Soviet Union appeared close to world domination, despite internal troubles and global unpopularity. A revived USA was seen as a lesser evil. This was the situation up until the collapse of pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, which surprised everyone. Right-wingers—and even some on the Left—had been predicting a collapse since about 1917. But I don’t know of anyone who said in 1988 that the Soviet Union was finally on the eve of destruction.
Thatcher and Bush Senior saw their new-won strength in 1990 as a reward for their own virtue. And an excellent opportunity to punish unloved former allies like Saddam Hussein.
Those who suppose that Saddam blundered, should consider the counter-example of Ceaucescu in Romania. His rather dull dictatorship was favoured by the West for as long as he was a counterweight to Soviet power. This broke up in 1989, and at the end of that same year there was a coup in which he and his wife were overthrown and ignominiously shot. Saddam must have noticed, probably decided to prove that he was made of sterner stuff.
The invasion of Kuwait happened because Saddam felt he had been cheated of his reward for the long and bitter war against Iran, which had tamed that particular version of Islamic extremism. But Thatcher and Bush Senior saw Saddam’s actions as an opportunity to exercise their new-won power, and did so with great success in the short run.
President Reagan originally proposed ‘Star Wars’ as an alternative to global war. After the Soviet Union fell, this idea lost its rationality. Bush Junior’s revived version makes sense, only as a way to disable deterrence.
Someone out to damage the USA would do it covertly or use a front, as may have happened on September 11th. None of the existing nuclear-armed states would be likely to launch a missile at the USA—not unless they were already under attack and had little to lose.
There’s a suspicion that Saddam Hussein survived because he showed a capacity to lob missiles at Israel. There is reason to think he could have filled them with something worse than high explosive, had he supposed that he had nothing to lose.
A system using unproven technology would give the USA an edge in trying to bully existing nuclear-armed states—Russia on Chechnya, China on Tibet etc. But this is a gambling tactic, and the USA has misjudged things before.
The present war in Afghanistan is probably misjudged, even if the Taliban and bin Lanen are destroyed. Promises of ‘precision technology’ were never believable. Computer equipment can look brilliant when everything goes just right. But as any computer user knows, computers can also persist in doing just the wrong thing. Modern ‘smart’ software will ignore instructions and follow their own patterns rather than doing what you’re wanting them to do.
The USA has so far hit a UN-sponsored centre in charge of clearing land mines, a Red Cross warehouse full of relief aid and some villages under Northern Alliance control, as well as civilian targets in Taliban areas. Much like other bombing campaigns, the wrong targets are bound to be hit.
But beyond the immediate matter of the Afghan war, what are the wider issues?
The 1980s saw a restoration of capitalism. Rather, capitalist economics were restored, junking the social controls of the West’s Keynesian semi-capitalist system, which had been highly successful over several decades.
Mrs Thatcher genuinely believed that her restoration of capitalism would also lead to a restoration of the settled British values she had grown up with. But the very opposite happened.
The Keynesian semi-capitalist system was deemed to be undermining ‘natural’ social forms with its interference with natural market economics. Let the state return to its proper limited role as guarantor of law-and-order, enforcer of contracts and protector of property, and all of the natural family values would automatically reassert themselves.
They should have known it was crap world-view. If they didn’t, they should know now. Lady Thatcher, of course, has not the faintest suspicion she might have been even slightly mistaken. But New Labour has retained an irrational fondness for privatisation: a fondness that has perhaps wobbled since September 11th, but could be resumed if they are not continuously harassed on the topic.
(Suggestions that we should suspend normal politics while an alliance of most of the world’s major powers fight a bunch of Islamic hillbillies in Afghanistan need not be taken seriously. The fact that the USA’s former allies are now running wild is not a good reason to give the USA uncritical support.)
The basic intellectual error of the New Right is part of their inheritance from Marxism, the idea of a simple link between economic and social forms. As I see it, capitalism is not a system. It’s an economic method that can flourish within a great range of different social systems. Within each, it systematically corrupts and degrades them; because a social system is about the things money can’t buy, yet these vary widely from culture to culture.
Each particular culture hangs on tenaciously to its own particular values. Yet over a generation or two, humans can be trained by their economic systems into ceasing to respect what was once the core of their culture. Which is why most traditional moralists and religious teachers were suspicious of money, wanting it to be curbed or even banned outright.
Supposing that traditional values could be strengthened by market forces was a highly original idea. And utterly wrong, of course.
The new-born capitalist system of the 1980s doesn’t have a name, at least no name that would distinguish it from dozens of other completely different systems, past and present, that could also be called ‘capitalist’. So I’ll christen it ‘Punk Capitalism’, since it came into the world in the same era as Punk Rock and Punk Fashion.
The foul-mouthed radicalism of some of those characters was insignificant, since they had no positive vision of the world. Modern-minded people in the power elites don’t mind if you bad-mouth the Queen, just so long as you are respectful of money.
Protest takes its model from the dominant power, so we find anarchists seeking to cast out anarchy. Protests in 1960s mostly took for granted a benevolent state that underwrote social structures. They sought better enforcement of rights within it, more tax-and-spend on new issues.
Modern protesters are much less clear. ‘Feed the World’ built up mass support, but did not feed the world, nor explain coherently why this was not being done. It then vanished.
Likewise Anti-globalisation has had the weakness of not being coherently for anything. It takes its cue from the political mainstream, which is itself incoherent.
Punk Capitalism has the typical punk feature of rather disliking itself, but being bitterly opposed to any realistic alternative. Thatcher caught the mood when she said ‘there is no alternative’, and many people before me have noted the parallels. Some who had grown up in the 1960s slid quite easily from ‘Alternative Society’ to ‘There Is No Alternative’. Did so while making profitable moral and economic choices that they didn’t want to admit to.
A lot of the blame must lie with Leonid Brezhnev, who kept the Soviet Union in being for long enough for the West to go back to some bad old economic habits. And yet Western culture also accepted element of the 1960s protest, could fit in ex-Hippies as enthusiastic Yuppies.
The ‘Prague Spring’ was a lost opportunity for Leninism to merge smoothly and prosperously into the Keynesian semi-capitalist system, which would thereby have been invigorated and justified. It could have happened, but it didn’t, and we must live with the consequences.
There were other options, that could have been based on the widespread enthusiasm in the 1970s for turning wage-militancy into something more coherent, a demand for Workers Control. This too almost did happen, but large parts of the Left fought it bitterly at the time. (Including many who later capitulated to ‘There Is No Alternative’.)
Even though ‘Punk Capitalism’ hasn’t worked well even on its home ground, there is a messianic determination to impose it on everyone. Especially on societies that have now adapted nicely to what the West managed to impose on them a few decades back.
The West currently offers is a shallow culture which lusts after money with a quasi-religious fervour. Homogenised Human, in 42 extremely bland flavours, all meeting current US corporate criteria. ‘Rights Of The Individual’ only apply to such persons meeting acceptable definitions of what ‘The Individual’ is allowed to be.
We are drenched in a low-level exposure to sex, which is then diverted onto consumer products (few of which will satisfy the yearnings that have been aroused). But in the interests of morality, our governments also insist on interfering with actual sex, and in making noisy complaints about its private depiction in pornography, as well as its commercial expression in prostitution.
(Holland is a bold exception in actually legalising the prostitution that has flourished openly for years. Britain relies on laws which do not ban prostitution as such—customers could then be arrested, as does happen in parts of the USA—but which do guarantee that no prostitute can operate without breaking the law.)
All of this hypocritical snarl-up is very Punk, including an urge to shout at the top of your voice about all of the things that you are utterly disgusted by. And with deep roots in the culture also, Punks are the odd inheritors of Puritan values. With more than a littler ‘mortification of the flesh’ the common mediaeval heritage of Catholic and Protestant alike.
The polite side of Punk Capitalism is the gentile economics of Adam Smith, the supposed justification for this capitalist restoration. I spent several years studying Smith’s books in some detail, and determining he had misrepresented a lot of what he wrote about, especially the famous case of pin manufacture. All of this is set out in my book Wealth Without Nations. Briefly. Smith denied that Britain’s 18th century blossoming was the product of state action over the previous two or three centuries. He explained that Britain’s commercial prosperity was despite those who sought such a development and because of those who didn’t care. And yet all subsequent industrialisations were also state-led.
Adam Smith would have loathed the aggressively Christian Free-Traders of the 19th century, and probably felt no happier with the current Punk-Capitalism generation. Yet both these social systems use his ideology to justify themselves, so he remains relevant.
It is also valuable to start with the Smith, the Anglicised lowland Scot, because it avoids the silly and self-defeating notion of identifying capitalism with Jews. Jewish influence in 18th century Britain was marginal, non-existent in Scotland and in the northern cities where the Industrial Revolution began. Jews were gradually allowed into the workings of the British Empire, as with earlier empires, but only slowly did Jews to get anywhere near the levers of power, which they worked in much the same way as anyone.
Usury or capitalism gets falsely identified with Jews as notable practitioners of both. This is no more rational than associating music with Jews or mathematics with Jews. You find much individual achievement—but all in a social context that was made without regard for Jewish opinions.
It’s interesting to note that music and maths seem to be related activities—Einstein’s cousin Alfred Einstein was a noted musician and an interesting character in his own right. There are a whole range of things that particular Jews are very good at it, especially at creating interesting and effective hybrids of their own culture and the host culture.
Oddly, Black Africans achieve great success with their own sort of music, but not much maths or physics that I’ve heard of. And one also has had remarkable achievements in maths and physics by Hindus like Satyendra Bose, Sir Chandrasekhara Raman and Srinivasa Ramanujan, while Indian music has not yet impacted global culture. (Maybe it should be, and maybe no one’s yet been smart enough to figure out a mathematical equivalent of jazz etc., which would be an idea worth perusing.)
But instead of looking for valuable insights in alien cultures, the current crop of Globalisers are anxious to make everyone else exactly like them, on the grounds that only then will they be free and prosperous.
In economic ‘science’ as promoted by the New Right, you have a model of the world in which there is no production as such, but only the exchange of money and goods defined in terms of monetary values. And it’s inhabited by non-humans who will never panic or get greedy, and have an infallible insight into their own material interests.
The ‘economically rational’ system also supposes that people are emotionally empty creatures that can be satisfied just by the accumulation of money. Rather, it does not consistently believe this, holding it to be absolutely true and also not true at all.
This rubbish calls itself ‘rational’. There have been philosophies that have tried to remodel humans on their own notion of rationality, but this isn’t one of them.
Separately from this economics, you have the ‘rights’ culture. The Right To Lawyers is deemed essential, whereas such things as food, water, health care, education and security are deemed to follow automatically from commerce and the Right To Lawyers.
The historic context of Rights Of Man was a commercial / professional middle class pushing its way out of the restrictions of the traditional order. Having had its ‘unnecessary’ restrictions removed, the traditional order then collapsed. This greatly surprised the middle class, who had deemed the traditional order to be an automatic consequence of the Right To Lawyers and are still inclined to blame someone else.
But meantime ‘Rights Of Man’ had to be hastily reinvented as ‘Human Rights’. Women had been shaken out of their traditional role by the changes and understandably wanted their share of the new freedoms and opportunities.
The shift was however made without and admission that lots of other things must change if women become wage workers. In a cash-dominated society, the vital task of producing a next generation receives far too little support.
Since the 1980s, we have had the globalisation of a rather corrupt culture with strong Christian content. The World Trade Centre was a highly visible expression of the forces that hijacked the Western financial system.
Under Keynesianism, there was a rising tide of prosperity that did lift all boats. From the 1970s onwards, it has been turned into a turbulent torrent that sinks or exalts almost at random. A global casino favouring a mix of luck, strength, cleverness and ruthlessness.
Skyscrapers were the dreams of the 1900s. Made fleshless reality in the 1920s. Boringly copied all over the world, so that increasingly every city looks like every other city.
These huge buildings are ugly, unpopular and dangerous, it makes no sense to go on building them. Some people see in them ‘greatness’, it’s more like pettiness on a gigantic scale.
The late Two Towers always did look as if someone had left them there by accident. Even in New York they were out of place. A shell secreted by a self-obsessed swarm of The Individual. A visible signal that the richest people in the world think that beauty and elegance are much too expensive.
We have a system of Limited-Sovereignty Globalisation. The world is to be thrown open to money, but unwanted labour from poor countries is constrained by national barriers. The world does not owe you a living, but you are forbidden to make a living disconnected from the rest of the world.
It’s not quite Imperialism. In the Philippines, the US endorsed the unconstitutional removal of a President who’d been too favourable to the Philippines poor. It’s a standard tactic, cripple imperfect democracies and you lay them open to commercial exploitation. But always they remain sovereign nations, so that their poor stay squalidly in place while the rich world helps itself to their cleverest, best educated and most dynamic people.
The Keynesian semi-capitalist system sought to impose a common standard but also accepted a duty to look after people. It had something of the Wellsian vision, hoping to process everyone into an identical citizen of a world state.
Punk Capitalism also seeks to impose a common standard—a worse system even by the crude measurement of growth in GNP. But also flatly denies any duty to look after people. They are expected to look after themselves, but forbidden to do it their way. They must run their own affairs, but only in a manner that the West approves of.
Adam Smith called Free Trade a utopia, and if ‘freedom’ means everyone doing as they please, it remains a utopian notion. Smith relied on the Enlightenment theory that people would spontaneously arrange themselves into a splendid ‘natural order’ if left alone. The French Revolution showed that the idea was an interesting half-truth and never the whole truth. When people removed the controls that had stabilised their social system, it did not find a ‘natural’ balance, but instead kept going off in unexpected directions.
Our Punk Capitalism or Limited-Sovereignty Globalisation is very far from unstructured, it’s just that the power has passed from democratic governments to unelected corporation bosses and individual plutocrats. It’s an assertion of the Rights Of Money, and the resultant chaos is overstressing us all.
The existing ‘free’ market puts drastic curbs on the most basic resource, human labour. National barriers remain in place, so that the same sort of labour can have a very different price in different nations. The “North American Free Trade Agreement” makes it clear that only Rights Of Money count. Barriers to labour remain in place, unlike the European Community. The same system is now being extended to all of Latin America, with Cuba the lone hold-out.
‘Free Trade’ also does not mean selling at what price you like, this is restricted by ‘anti-dumping’ rules. And the advantage of being at the centre of the global market is exaggerated by patent and copyright protection, which are being extended to places that once ignored them.
Trade of a sort has existed for centuries, even millennia, but was often gift-exchange, more concerned with friendship than cash. There was also a limited trade in luxuries and rarities, especially along the famous ‘Silk Road’ from China to the West.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw something new, ordinary non-luxury items traded round the world. This began in the 16th and 17th century with the New World. Europeans took land from the Native Americans and also extensively imported Africans to work it. Most Native Americans had cultures unused to agriculture and could not adapt.
Western success was built by disreputable methods, but this is written out of history. It was also a success that changed the successful societies out of all recognition—how much of 18th century values survives?
Some of the New Right admire Edmund Burke: I strongly doubt that the sentiment would have been returned.
Look now at the early 21st century world, where Tony Blair does bestride the measured globe, like a buffoon. But not seen as silly by US opinion, which currently is what counts.
Blair praises the high office achieved by Colin Powell, not considering its context. The US military was the one place where multi-racialism was seriously enforced and old racist views rooted out. Some good work was also done in the police, but wider social trends helped a criminal subculture to flourish in the black areas of the cities and that problem is very much worse than Britain. In most of the USA, racial integration has definitely failed and inter-racial marriage remains quite rare. Britain, unexpectedly, is ‘mongrelising’ itself with great enthusiasm.
USA racism is underground rather than dead. The Republican Party gets the votes of racists because they know that Republicans will always find some excuse to stop effective anti-racist measures. Racial separation remains acute. The military, under political pressure, enforced racial integration and thus is the one area of success. Britain failed to do this—its history of military racism was much older and deeper and also tied into national consciousness. But in areas where society makes its own arrangements, housing and love/marriage, the USA stays segregated, and Britain is becoming unexpectedly integrated.
Blair backs Bush Junior in his assertion of a ‘police’ role. Global Boss is more like it, with Britain as Chief Enforcer. Blair has achieved something of the same role for Bush Junior as Mrs Thatcher had for Bush Senior—only it was her last major role.
There was an understandable sympathy for the thousands who died in the fall of the Two Towers. But to take this as a justification for backing Bush was a serious misreading. A lot of people even in Britain felt that the USA had brought it on themselves by arrogant behaviour, which they immediately reasserted.
Islamic reaction against Limited-Sovereignty Globalisation is strongest because:
- they have not been effective at resisting it.
- it is visibly dominated by their traditional foes, Latin-Christian heirs of the Crusaders,
- these same people are also often also their former colonial masters.
Disorders in the Islamic world is not entirely home-grown. The West undermining their real traditions, yet also helped defeat home-grown radicalism. Anarchic localism was encouraged against every unifying force, including the early Saudi dynasty and Nasser.
The Ottoman Empire was functional and capable of development. But the West roused up an Arab Revolt, while also intending to cheat them all along. Then when they did get their act together through Nasserite secular culture and socialism, this too was sabotaged, and religious extremism encouraged.
But it’s not just Arabs or Muslims. I already mentioned McVeigh, who was a logical extension of many random shootings by unhappy individuals in the USA. We now have something similar in Switzerland, a man murderously enraged at the ‘Zug Mafia’, which may have been dishonest and neglectful, but hardly violent or deserving of death.
I don’t know much about Switzerland, but in earlier debates about gun control, I had been confidently assured that massacres couldn’t happen among an armed population, where any rampaging gunman would be dealt with easily. I felt at the time that it was culture rather than guns than kept Switzerland civilised: I am saddened but not surprised that this civilised consensus has been breaking down.
The fashionable notion of economics existing independent of politics and culture is total rubbish. The society always comes first, and ‘economics’ in the sense of production detached from personal need is heavily dependant on a suitable social structure.
Modern ‘freedom’ has been about the right of a US Overclass to interfere in the rest of the world. Globalisation has removed the barriers that did protect the welfare of poorer populations. Japan and the East Asian tigers were successful during an era when the USA was desperate for their support against the highly successful modernisation of China. So they were allowed to keep protectionist barriers. When these were removed, the economies of Japan and the East Asian Tigers suffered great damage, as might have been expected.
The USA has a culture that put a man onto the moon, and a succession of fools and crooks into the White House. It’s nothing we should be copying.
After 11th September, there were many alternatives. For instance the USA could have arranged for a selection of relatives of the victims to fly to Pakistan and give it a human angle? Plus an offer to present the evidence to some agreed impartial tribunal?
But that would have been ignoring the hierarchical ‘pyramid’ expressed by institutions like the G8. All people are not deemed equal except in a sense so vague as to be meaningless. There was no question of putting the USA at a level with poor non-white non-Christian people. Attitudes that were no longer spoken aloud were never the less still active and powerful. It was taken for granted that the USA could and should act arbitrarily.
Talks continued until just days before the Sept. 11 attacks, and Taliban representatives repeatedly suggested they would hand over bin Laden if their conditions were met, sources close to the discussions said.
Throughout the years, however, State Department officials refused to soften their demand that bin Laden face trial in the U.S. justice system. It also remained murky whether the Taliban envoys, representing at least one division of the fractious Islamic movement, could actually deliver on their promises. (Washington Post, October 29, 2001)
The Taliban’s offence is that they did not extradite bin Laden on the USA’s say-so. The position of women not much better in Saudi Arabia than Afghanistan, but Saudi Arabian oil is needed whereas Afghans were ‘surplus to requirements’ once the Russians had pulled back. A bunch of hillbillies with rifles in Afghanistan were supposed to know their place.
Regarding the bin Laden network, I do not see it as especially Islamic. Rather, it is a dangerous hybrid of Islamic and Global-American culture. The random violence comes from the Global-American side, and is different from the Islamic pattern, where acts of violence were always directed at building a new and peacefully Islamic order.
The evidence linking bin Laden to World Trade Centre massacres is weaker than that linking Henry Kissinger to the Chilean coup. Or various other US notables to numerous war crimes and crimes against peace and democracy. The Taliban demand for proper evidence and a neutral court is valid. The USA however wants to impose its own law.
One might wish for a truly powerful and impartial court to punish all offenders without regard for status. The idea of Saddam Hussein and Henry Kissinger having to share a cell in attractive. Better still, pair off bin Laden and Colonel Oliver North. It should be noted that most US administrations have caused more avoidable deaths than bin Laden’s people have yet managed, assuming he really did direct all the stuff he has been blamed for. Bush Junior would probably not have been an exception even without the horrors at the World Trade Centre.
It is also moot if bin Laden is guilty by the strict standards of Western law, the sort we apply to our own people. He may well have been tipped off that something was planned, but not necessarily told what.
The offence is for people on the 8th rank of the USA’s global power pyramid to dare strike out against their betters. Mass terrorism using bombs is a standard US tactic, as are covert operations. Regarding ‘terrorism’, no clear distinction is drawn between civil war on a contested territory with attacks on non-military targets. And of course no clear distinction is sought. The USA’s own policies have preferred ‘total war’—terrorism conducted by a recognised state—to regular warfare.
There is also continuing rhetorical confusion between cowardly behaviour and cheating or dishonourable behavior. The media tends to celebrate cheating by the side they approve of, that is central to US culture.
Arabs moving to non-Western ideologies is a simple reaction to the West showing it does not care about their welfare. Punk Capitalism with its decayed version of Christian chauvinism will not allow them to succeed in the modern world, nor will they be left along to do things their own way. Islamic extremism may be their only way forward now.
The West requires, not just that they modernise to be like the West, but that they manage it without any of the harshness and state regulation that the West actually used.
You are required to make an omelette. You are forbidden to break eggs.
You’d like to make something other than an omelette? That’s forbidden, it’s a violation of the rights of eggs.
I find my thoughts returning to Cromwellian comparisons, the Taliban as Islamic Ironsides. The largest ethnic group in a divided society, asserting itself through extremist faith after normal arrangements have broken down. And of course Western Liberals are heirs of Cromwell, though they prefer to forget this.
Cromwell’s struggles were mostly internal wars, against predominantly Anglican Cavaliers, and then Puritan hard-liners such as Levellers and 5th-Monarchy Men. Next he defeated Scottish Presbyterians, as well as moderate Catholic Irish who tried to introduce religious tolerance. (The Gaelic Irish were almost only upholders of tolerance in modern sense.) And Cromwell’s main external wars were the ding-dong naval battles against the Protestant Dutch.
From all this, the British Empire was born, and could be continued by less brutal methods, at least among Britons. We did not get where we are today by showing the sort of tolerance and moderation that Britons now urge on others.
Islamic societies were traditionally tolerant, admired for their tolerance by Europeans in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But that was when secular rulers had the religious under firm control. Muslim clerics asserted religious values against secular moderation, and continued to do so when the controls were removed.
I don’t see Islam as a truly global force. Muslims have spread, with the general intermingling of world populations. But Islam has made very little progress into non-Muslim populations, except in Black Africa.
How long can the USA manage to persuade Muslims to gang up on other Muslims, when Muslims as a whole are clearly being cheated? The difficulty in Iraq was that the US wanted to keep the power-bases that had produced Saddam, but dispense with Saddam himself since their own propaganda had demonised him. Now this was like trying to depose Satan without damaging Hell, not an easy prospect. Saddam was and is master of his own power structures, and when the structure itself was under threat from Shiite rebels, the West bent the rules to allow the Baath state to survive.
Elsewhere, what has emerged is a highly Americanised version of Islam. And that’s what makes it so dangerous.
Nihilism as a natural response to globalism. The privatisation of terror is part of a trend.
The bin Laden version of Islam has acquired the rootless self-righteous that is typical of the USA. Islam always has had its own extremes, but also a sense of territory and honour. This has been destroyed in a few places, but it being stretched thin in many other places. The Arabian subject of the Saudi dynasty seem highly discontented, with the US presence disruptive.
The USA has continuously sanctioned and sanctified the idea of personal vengeance, carried through regardless of law. Law is fetishized but also evaded. The campaign against bin Laden is globalised lynch-law. Rather than present its evidence to some secure and impartial tribunal, the USA goes looking for vengeance. It’s also been noted that the USA’s list of ‘terrorists’ is a bit arbitrary. It is not confined just to people who hit at non-military targets outside of the territory that they are fighting to control.
The mentality of the anthrax-spreaders is just as puzzling. I was astonished to find there was someone who thought the tabloid rubbish of the National Enquirer worth targeting. Of course they only managed to kill a humble photo editor and infected a mailroom employee, only a fool would think you’d get anyone at policy level through the post. But even allowing for this, to target the National Enquirer is rather like plotting to assassinate Donald Duck. (Yet we are told that Disney world is reviewing its security. It is, of course, symbolic of everything that 3rd World has been induced to want but is actually denied.)
But as I said, it’s not just Islam. When you get exactly the same pattern in people of very different origin, look to the common factor. Which is the USA, where people of very different cultural origins mirror each other with uncanny precision, in fields as diverse as sport, entertainment and gangsterism. One also finds British norms among Irish, Italian, Jews and Afro-Caribbeans in Britain, as well as among ‘traditional’ groups.
US culture disrupts whatever it touches, and is not a fit pattern for global culture. The West should either have let people develop their own way, or else totally assimilated other cultures, along the lines proposed by Wells in The Shape Of Things To Come. (This includes invasion and assumed desecration of both the Vatican and of Mecca & Medina by forces of World State—this was dropped from the filmed version.)
Trying to homogenise the world using global television and global commerce is cruel and stupid. It merely raises desires that cannot be satisfied. Even in the rich West, we are less happy than we were before governments followed New Right policies, intentionally took away everyone’s peace of mind on the grounds it made them inefficient.
The new order has not been a success even in terms of crude production of goods. Studies of GNP growth from 1950-75 as compared to 1975-2000 show clearly that there has been no net economic benefit for anyone, not even Britain and America as the hubs of this new world order. There has in fact been considerable economic loss.
It is indeed a war against Islam: Islam as a substantial religion and a coherent way of life. There is no strong objection to a gutted Islam lingering on with good intentions and hazy spirituality like the Church Of England. Or as marginal fanatics who are deeply respectful of the rich and powerful, like the US ‘Fundamentalists’. But Islam as most Muslims would understand it has to go, in the view of the new Globalisers.
During the 1960s and 1970s I had hopes that the Arabs themselves might move away from Islam, as was happening to a degree, especially in South Yemen and in Dhofar. Britain and America found it convenient to strengthen the more backward and right-wing versions of Islam in those days, helping defeat the Maoist Arabs in Dhofar in a covert war that was shamefully neglected by the British left.
I was never an admirer of Nasser, but he might have united and modernised the Arab world, and the West actively intervened to stop him. Before that, they had also tamed Saudi Arabia, which had to stop its unification of Arabia in the face of Western colonial hostility. And before that, Britain had preserved the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century when it might sensibly have been broken up and modernised as India was. But then incited the empire’s Arabs to revolt when the Ottomans looked to Germany as well as Britain for their modernisation under the Young Turks. It was also the USA and Britain that messed up Iran, ruined a secular and democratic revolution in the 1950s.
None of this is seen by Francis Fukuyama, who is a Wall Street tribalist who’s now decided that the ‘End of History’ means forcibly ending other people’s history. History will be abolished by eliminating everything un-American, and the world will become a gigantic suburb with the USA as its eternal and unchallenged centre.
Wall Street tribalists are much more dangerous breed than the Afghans, who generally respect other people’s territory, pursue their distinctive life-style just among themselves.
For Fukuyama, no one is to be allowed to make history their own way. In the name of Freedom, Liberalism and Individualism, the entire world must be compelled to live a shallow imitation of whatever is currently fashionable in the West.
But the way in which I used the word ‘history’ was different. It referred to the progress of mankind over the centuries toward modernity, which is characterised by institutions like liberal democracy and capitalism. (Francis Fukuyama, We remain at the end of history, an article that first appeared in the ‘Wall Street Journal)
Didn’t the last few centuries and the rise of Europe also include piracy, industrialised slavery, massacre of native populations, opium wars, transportation of convicts, religious extremism, racism, armies and navies sent all round the world? These were the actual features of Europe in its progress towards modernisation. And Christianity was the only religion that saw all other religions as inherently wrong, not just inferior. Traditional Christianity stood alone in banned all other faiths whenever it had the power to do so. Islam allowed free worship to ‘people of the book’, while Hinduism and Buddhism would coexist with any other faith.
Progress and modernisation are not nice processes. Science needs a measure of intolerance: people need to be told which ideas are sensible and which are foolish. Each generation, a consensus is formed that people can rely on without having to try to reinvent human knowledge all by themselves. But equally people are not locked into tradition: when Einstein’s predictions were shown to be better than Newton’s, then this became the new standard. The idea of a new post-Einstein theory of gravity is being considered, though so far the evidence is indecisive.
Authoritative yet non-traditional decisions imposed by councils of experts was also the procedure of the Latin-Christian Church. Tradition was revised many times, but whatever the latest truth was, it was binding. Transubstantiation was a hard-line innovation that never the less became an Article Of Faith, as did Papal Power.
Galileo has the best claim to be the first modern scientist, not letting mysticism seep in as Kepler did, yet he was a Catholic and got into trouble precisely because he wanted to make the faith see reason. Only after the foolish rejection of Galileo’s work did the focus move to other countries. (None of them very liberal or democratic: France under the ancien regime solved most of the problems Newton had left unresolved, including the puzzling irregularities of the moon’s orbit.)
Francis Bacon had defined a modernist agenda in his New Atlantis, inspired by Spanish conquests in the New World. He cited key advances since Roman times as the magnetic compass, paper, printing and gunpowder. All of which had been invented by the Chinese and brought to Europe via the Mongols and the Islamic World.
Scientists like Newton did not just draw on the heritage of Greek geometry, they also had ‘Arabic’ numerals—of Hindu origin—and the new language of algebra and algorithms that were an original production of the Islamic world.
Western success in the 18th and 19th centuries should be seen as part of a general rise in world culture. Large islands such as Iceland, Madagascar, Hawaii and New Zealand were still unknown at the time of Julius Caesar, were all occupied by the time of Columbus. The world was ready for something new.
In Europe’s Dark Ages, an outside observer might have sensibly have concluded we were a hopelessly backward lot, that it would be kindest for us to be absorbed by some superior culture—probably Islam.
Europe was lucky enough to keep its own original social values, and became the inheritor of the best of world culture. Europe also was the closest major civilised centre to the rich and vulnerable lands of the New World—from China or Japan it is much further. Europe at a critical time was boxed in by Islam on the traditional trade routes east and southeast, given an incentive to venture south-west around Africa or due west across the Atlantic.
(The scholars of ancient Alexandria had figured out that a ship sailing west from Spain would eventually reach the Far East, there was just no reason to try it. Nor did anyone repeat the Phoenician achievement in sailing all the way round Africa: it was a simple round trip with nothing found that could not be found in nearer parts of Black Africa.)
Europe after its Dark-Age crash also had relative peace. Wars within Europe would be fought until one side collapsed or else both sides were exhausted. They did not go on until the whole society was ruined and stripped bare, as happened in the Mongol invasion of Mesopotamia. The Mongols and the subsequent ‘Tartar Yolk’ are normally blamed for Russia’s backwardness compared to the rest of Europe. But China, India and the Islamic world experienced just the same overrun, as well as other conquests by other nomadic peoples.
Europe west of Vienna was unusual among highly civilised regions in not having been invaded by barbarians since the Norse Vikings were incorporated into the culture. And the Norse pattern of raiding, trading and empire-building was a model that Europe then applied to the rest of the world.
Britain also was not democratic at the time of the Industrial Revolution, and did not practice Free Trade. The time-span 1760-1830 saw a modest advance of monarchical power at the expense of Parliament, where the Prime Minister often came from the House Of Lords. The House Of Commons was elected by less than a tenth of the population, with the very rich having disproportionate influence within this group.
But for Fukuyama:
Liberal democracy and free markets do not work at all times and everywhere. They work best in societies with certain values, whose origins may not be entirely rational. It is not an accident that modern liberal democracy emerged first in the Christian West, since the universalism of democratic rights can be seen in many ways as a secular form of Christian universalism. (Ibid.)
A Cash Crusade, indeed. But Fukuyama demands adherence to one very small set of western values, not to western values as such. China is currently doing very nicely under a regime that Bismarck and Napoleon III might have admired. India is seeking to hang on to its own version of Keynesianism. Fukuyama is a justifier just of the Punk Capitalism.
The New Right have flourished thanks to the confusion generated by most of the Left referring to the Keynesian semi-capitalist system as ‘capitalist’. Despite tons of pompous philosophy, genuinely precise thinking was rare. Most of them suffered from ‘Otiosis’—banal or silly thoughts dressed up in an complex vocabulary that is hard to follow, but mostly vague and muddled when you do finally figure out what they’re talking about. Otiose was a favoured word, and is a rare variant of ‘pointless’, ‘superfluous’ or ‘futile’ with no additional fine shade of meaning, or none that most people would recognise.
The Left in the 1960s was dominated by Trotskyists, who had achieved nothing over the last 40 years in which grand successes had been scored by their rivals in Social Democracy and Stalinist Communism.
In a vengeful spirit, the Trotskyists successfully persuaded public opinion that none of the grand achievements of the rivals were real. They were less successful in persuading anyone to let them try for any grand achievements of their own, in fact they have none. Talk of ‘armed struggle’ was empty, serious guerrilla movements came from Stalinist or Maoist sources, or else from older Nationalist traditions, like the IRA.
Yet history happens, and progress is made. The world in the 1980s was much more like the Bolshevik vision of 1917 than like anyone else’s vision as of 1917. Loose general terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ cover the shift: few other than the Bolsheviks and their supporters wanted an abolition of colonial empires, the ending of racial and class barriers, the equality of women. But all of this success was somehow redefined as failure, since the best hopes and finest visions had not been entirely realised.
Enter the New Right. The success of various semi-capitalist systems was cited as proof of the merits of ‘capitalism’. But then Punk Capitalism is justified by shifting the meaning from a very broad to very narrow understanding of ‘capitalism’.
Most Western commentators treat the idea of a Muslim golden age as if it were some crazy myth. But the cultural package that let Western Europe dominate the world was put together in the Islamic world. Islam lost out, not because of cultural inferiority, but after a ‘Double Whammy’ of first the Crusades, armoured savages from chill and backward Europe, and then the immensely destructive Mongol invasion
Despite this, Islam survived, albeit in a traditionalist form which concentrated just on the immensely hard task of preserving what they had. And Muslims were in control of much of world trade and had no need to seek out obscure new routes, which led Western Europe to its unexpected discovery of the New World.
Despite which, most of the Islamic world was free of Western influence until the 19th or even 20th centuries. The various Islamic countries suffer from the same problem as does most of Black Africa: colonialism lasted long enough to discredit what existed, yet not long enough to assimilate the people into a new system, as happened in India. Muslims were also prevented from regenerating themselves around their own traditional state structures: this was fine in Japan but not in the Ottoman Empire. And radical leftists were defeated, as the West tried to defeat them in China but got kicked out instead.
The East Asian Tigers—most of them former Japanese colonies—were doing quite well under their own version of the West’s semi-capitalist Keynesian system. The West has kept the essence of Keynes for its own benefit, billions of dollars subsidy could be found for US airlines after September 11th, and several times before that the government had stepped in to prevent panics or financial collapses that would have damaged the collective interests of the West’s Overclass. But wider social responsibility has been dumped.
Back in the Keynesian days of tax-and-spend, Eisenhower spoke of the Military-Industrial Complex, and was suspicious of it. But it was this Technocratic monster rather the ‘classic Capitalism’ that won the cold war. The Military-Industrial Complex financed basic science and technology from the military budget and then allowing the benefits to flow freely into non-military uses. That’s the origin of the microchip, the internet, the advanced aviation of the very aircraft that stuck the World Trade Centre.
The Leninist alternative also had its merits. Yugoslavs were a lot safer and happier when they were run by the Yugoslav Communist Party. Of course Slobodan Milosevic was as guilty as anyone of starting the disintegration with his move from Yugoslav identity to a purely Serbian nationalism. But the West was quite happy to stoke up the fires and encourage Croat nationalism. War might have been avoided had the Croats been told they’d get no support unless they gave up their ethnic-Serb territories.
As for Albanians, I can’t say whether or not they were any happier under their own Communist regime. They were certainly less of a source of regional crises. Shouldn’t the USA reflect carefully before trying to knock over any more functional Leninist regimes.
No doubt the West believed that the people would be much better off as ex-Leninists, and that it’s only a series of bizarre accidents or a few wicked people that stopped them adjusting smoothly to Western norms. But do they still believe? The unexpected keeps happening and the ‘normal’ remains a textbook fiction.
The dominant sections of the Liberal-Left as well as the New Right take a ‘human rights’ view, supposing that people from utterly different traditions would automatically adapt themselves to Western norms if left free to do so. This ignores the lesson of history: Western norms had to be hammered into Western people over several centuries before it was safe to let the common people vote.
Not that it’s ever entirely safe. You hear the bizarre assertion that democracies don’t go to war with each other, it’s just not so. Consider:
- George 3rd had the support of most Britons when he tried to suppress the fledgling USA
- The USA started a war with Canada and the British Empire in 1812, not realising that most Canadians were there because they preferred the British link
- In the 1860s, both North and South had a clear popular mandate for their own policies, Confederates for secession and Union for a re-conquest.
- In the Boer War, the Boers were determined to assert their rights of democratic self-rule and Lloyd George was very much in a minority when he opposed Britain’s war effort. (Neither side cared about the black majority’s opinions)
- In 1914, Britain and France both democratically decided on war. Russia, Austria and Germany were more complex, but did have elected parliaments that had the option of opposing the war and chose instead to support it.
- In 1919, the Irish voted for a Republic and Britain tried to suppress it, again with majority support among Britons.
- In 1930s, Adolph Hitler came to power by impeccably constitutional means and with a clear majority. He several times got his policies endorsed in referenda.
- In 1990s Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic consistently won free and fair elections, right up until the loss of Kosovo.
In Afghanistan and in the Muslim world, we Westerners are blaming people with a tradition of centuries of conflict with us, because they do no immediately adopt our ways—and do it by means that we never found possible regardless.
The role of Israel is also an irritant. The idea of a secure and sovereign Jewish state is one thing. Allowing this state to seize land that ceased to be Jewish centuries ago is a very different matter.
I cannot see that Israel has any rights to territories beyond their 1968 borders. Nor to alter the UN decision back in 1948, that Jerusalem should be under international control.
Israel is also being foolish. There is currently a window of opportunity, and it’s closing. A permanent settlement became possible after the decline of Arab secular nationalism, with the USA favourable and Russia no longer a factor (except that Russia is glad of a place to dump its unwanted Jewish minorities).
The rise of political Islam is closing the window. Israelis they don’t have that much more time to get a sensible settlement.
This could include a genuinely impartial peacekeeping force on Arab territories would trade immediate freedom of action for long-term security.
Japan has been looking for a suitable overseas role, what about a peace-keeping force for Jerusalem and for a new Palestinian state? They are almost all Buddhists, Jerusalem about as interesting to them as preserved teeth of Buddha to us, so they’d be neutral. Need to filter out Japanese Christians (plus Muslims and Jews, if they have any) and a solidly Buddhist force.
I’m not really expecting this to happen. But the problem lies with the foolishness of leaders, and the ignorance of public opinion, especially in the USA. Sensible solutions do remain open.
The USA seems determined to miss its opportunities. The original Taliban offer to extradite bin Laden if evidence of guilt were offered is the international norm. If the sources were genuinely sensitive, a trustworthy and impartial tribunal could be offered.
Given the public humiliation of the USA on September 11th, I am not surprised that no such offer were made. By the strict forms of law, maybe bin Laden could not have been found legally guilty for killings that he undoubtedly inspired. The actual perpetrators were already dead, by their own choice. A guilty party was needed, the USA is determined on vengeance, and presumably will get it.
But could it then be the last lawless act of the US hegemony, with a subsequent move to real rule of law?
First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 66-67, Winter 2001
[Sadly, US hegemony has continued being destructive, trashing Libya and Syria while failing to fix Iraq. But public opinion in the USA is now much less sure about what it’s doing. They might decide the whole thing was foolish over the next few years.]