One of the important historical debates in political philosophy goes between Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rosseau. For Hobbes, the primary threat to political well-being comes from man’s natural state, ungoverned but for his own fear and aggression. Anarchy is the enemy. For Rousseau, on the other hand, the primary worry is to be at the mercy of the whims of power unchecked. Political organisation has its benefits for Rousseau; but without the requisite (direct) democratic organisation, it’s probably not worth the costs.
We live today in Rousseauesque times. (You know you love those vowels.) Certainly philosophically this is for good reason. Rousseau’s vision of the virtue of politics as self-government – i.e. a system “in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before” – set the program for centuries of liberal political development, and expresses as profound an ethical and political wisdom as there ever was.
But our appreciation of Rousseau’s lesson has lead us to forget about Hobbes. Today, we must re-learn his lessons.
It is without doubt that when our children will learn history in a few decades, the attacks of September 11th and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will mark an important turning point, if not for world history as such, then certainly for the Middle East. Western actions in these years were shaped by what has become known as the Freedom Agenda. One central role was played by The Case for Democracy, a book by Russian dissident, and more recently Israeli government minister, Nathan Sharansky. The book argues that Middle Eastern terrorism fundamentally stems from the lack of democracy in the Middle East. To this day, this is a common explanation in the West: the dictators of the Middle East have made a (successful) policy out of deflecting domestic criticism onto Western targets, and it is the pent-up aggression of Arab domestic oppression that we consequently experience as terrorism. The conclusion is simple: reform the domestic politics of the Middle East into democracies, and terrorism will cease.
As Syria is showing us today, and as Iraq and Afghanistan have showed us before, the Freedom Agenda has been a vast and outrageous Western mistake. But it is of the utmost importance to realize why the West has made this mistake. Because the Freedom Agenda was not a slip but a profound mistake, one that stems from the deepest sources of Western historical consciousness at its current juncture.
The core mistake is that – in a typical Western form thinking, political or otherwise – the Freedom Agenda reverts a question concerning something we don’t understand and are not comfortable with to a question that sits conveniently with our experience and world-view.
There are several strands here.
Dictatorship. We know the evil of exploitative elites (whether that be in the form of dictatorship, communist party rule, or ‘the 1%’). This is perhaps the major lesson of our history: war-mongering dictators, self-enriching monarchs and all-powerful plutocrats are evils to be overcome. In this sense, we are always re-fighting the French Revolution and WWII. No matter where in the world we are considering a conflict: our self-conception places us in the role of heroic battlers against some oppressive minority. As a corollary of this, on the other hand, we are deeply uncomfortable with any mass anti-Western sentiments (or widespread militancy or racism or fundamentalism). After all, seeing dictatorship as the genuine problem, as we would like to, tacitly assumes that really at bottom all people are liberals— that if given some freedom, they will all sell their xenophobias and ethnosupremacist ideologies down the road, and adopt a Western mindset.
Materalism. The assumption of liberalism also entails an assumption of materialism. Western thought abhors culture. Culture is indefinable. Culture is hard to understand in its multiplicity. Culture is non-quantifiable. But most importantly, culture opens up the possibility of thorough-going non-liberalism. What if a culture is producing mass religious intolerance, or aggressive ethnocentrism? It would follow that the removal of elite oppression would not lead to liberalism. Best to avoid such a thought, and, for example, to explain any form of illiberal culture in material terms (‘they’re poor!’, ‘there’s no schools!’, or even, ‘there’s been a draught!’)
Post-Colonialism and Anti-Racism. Just as our real enemies are the oppressive elites we bravely resisted in our past, so the guilt we are forever regurgitating is that of our accursed ‘colonial past’. Accordingly, we tacitly divide the world according to our post-colonial world-view. There are Western ‘colonial oppressors’ (our past selves), and there are the ‘victims’ of our colonialism (i.e. roughly equalling the wider world population). These latter ‘victims’ should not, as a rule, be held responsible for any problematic attitudes, lest we seem like our ethnosupremacist ancestors. Better to blame their (preferably Western-backed) leaders, so that responsibility is reflected back to ourselves and the boogeymen we’re familiar with, rather than having to sit uncomfortably with masses of culpable non-Western foreigners.
At this point it should be obvious that it is the combination of these Western penchants that produces ideologies like the Freedom Agenda. There really is no problem of non-elite, wide-spread anti-Western sentiments to be worried about! Terrorism is the same problem we have always faced: ‘dictators persecuting their own people’. Thank G’d.
Unfortunately, however, all of the above elements of current Western thinking are severely misguided and forever cloud our judgment.
Monarchy (this thought I owe to Eric Palmer). Our obsessive antipathy to authoritarian forms of government has lured us into radical Bonapartist foreign policy thinking that is completely unappreciative of why authoritarian forms of government arose in the first place, and why they have been the dominant form of government for most of history. Pace Western assumptions, authoritarian rulers have in typical cases not oppressed in-themselves liberal societies, exploiting them for their own evil gains. Rather, societies throughout history have been characterized by widespread local forms of violence, conflict and exploitation. Even if it was not individuals harassing each other as in Hobbes’ state of nature, it has been families, tribes, and nations engaged in perpetual feuding. The central reason for authoritarianism, then, is as Hobbes’ envisioned it: to serve as an ultimate power, a judge, an ally to the commoners in their pursuit to check the power of their local overlords and tribal leaders. Authoritarianism more often than not represents an implicit consensus in a society where strife would otherwise be rampant; a status quo people can live with. This is one point Syria shows, where Assad represents more than his own interests, namely those of non-Sunni Syrians generally. (It is also something that comes out wonderfully in the famous interview Goldberg did with King Abdullah of Jordan).
Culture. Of course it is true that material factors matter. And certainly they can give us insight into how to solve important problems. Still, as anyone who’s ever traveled knows: its culture that matters. It’s that inexplicable thing you sense when in a foreign place: from the way people look at you, to what’s appropriate and not, to the myths they tell, to what they’re proud of, to what they’ll tolerate and when they’ll resort to violence. It is these matters which to significant degree determine what sort of conflicts a society will have and how they can be resolved.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the Middle East. Why did the Middle East give rise first to Pan-Arabic social-nationalist regimes in the ’60s, and now to Islamist reactionary ones? Why is ‘Allahu Akhbar’ the invariably battle cry, and what does this say about the nature of the fight? Why do citizens of Muslim countries massively support capital punishment for apostates and abhor atheism? The answers to these questions are complex, and they will all require profound cultural analysis. It is for this reason that foreign policy advise should be taken away from abstract thinkers in law and political science, and be gathered from historians and anthropologists. We don’t know what is currently moving minds in Syria. Are these fighters most profoundly Syrian nationalists, Arab nationalists, Shi’ite or Sunni partisans, or local peasants and farmers? The upshot is that there is no one answer to give to the question what produces conflicts or their anti-Western effects. Instead, we should heed Wittgenstein when he said, ‘look, don’t think.’
Colonialism and Neo-Christianity. Which brings me to what is perhaps the most profound strand of modern Western consciousness: the idea that it is ‘post-colonial’ and ‘post-Christian’. I think it’s neither. Let me take them in turn, starting with the latter.
Neo-Christinianity. The attitude that most pervades Western thinking today is Moralism. Western political consciousness takes that it has discovered the moral truth about organizing societies, and that as a consequence the West ought now embark on a world-wide project of evangelisation. What is this moral truth? It is the care, the respect for the individual under the aegis of equality and human rights. Unlike our forefathers, it is thought, we care about this world and its inhabitants. Save the environment! Feed the African! If only all the world embraces these projects, truly it will be saved and live in peace. But in fact this ideology is none other than Love, that great Christian invention. The West tends to demonize its ‘colonial’ and ‘crusader’ forefathers as irrevocable exploiters and sectarian demons, bent on world-domination. But this is a mischaracterization. The Christian missionaries (and their embodiments in state politics) were motivated by precisely the project we know today: to spread, in Loving Kindness, the Moral Truth to the far flung corners of the earth, so that the world may move away from tribal darkness and live in universal peace. (And of course, as is true today, to benefit just a little in the process.) The only difference is that for our ancestors the Moral Truth required the de jure acceptation of Christ the Savior, a mere detail and formalism if there ever was one. It is profoundly ironic, then, that what contemporary liberal consciousness chastises Christianity for is its conservative enforcement of strictures on human beings (‘no gays!’,, ‘no condoms!’), rather than loving people as they are. This precisely is the Christian critique of its Jewish origins, and as such represents the core of the Christian thought.
Colonialism. What is colonialism? Just like Christianity it is demonized in current ideology as an inherently exploitative project. But in truth, though of course in practice mass exploitation was the result, colonialism is a much deeper and indeed unavoidable phenomenon. It is the wholesale clash of modern Western cilivisation with the rest of the world, in its variety of tribal, feudal and other non-modern organisations. In this sense, we today live precisely in a continuation of the colonial era. Just as the British and the French before us, so now NATO and the US are always trying to understand what the difference is between us and the ‘others’, and attempting to make the equation between ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ a beneficial one for the former. This carries a lesson, pertaining to the ‘historians’ and ‘anthropologists’ mentioned before. The self-consciously colonial powers like Britain and France actively arranged a place in their bureaucracies and policy-making for ‘connaisseurs of foreign lands’. These were the colonial administrators, forever attempting to understand the lands they had gotten to and managing the conflicts arising from them for their colonial employers. This should once again be the model for the West. We should understand that, while thankfully not being legislatively responsible for most of the world, the fundamental colonial question of our Western navigation of the non-Western world has not dissipated. As such, we should see ourselves as neo-colonial powers, lest demonization of this period blur our judgment.
If there is an upshot to this seemingly endless political rant, I’d like it to be this. I think it is a characteristic of conservative thinking that it tries to see the contemporary period as of a piece with history; one more time frame that will be looked back on by future generations, just as we look back on others today. This means that, as in any historical period, we have paradigms and strange biases of thought, which we develop out of the historical juncture at which we have arrived. It is the duty of good political thinking and leadership to uncover these ideological trends, and act in awareness of them. It is in this sense that I think we should all be conservatives (and as a consequence, today spend some time relearning Hobbes).