Skip to comments.The Last Totalitarians - It’s not a completely new war.
Posted on 09/28/2001 12:26:25 PM PDT by Fury
The Last Totalitarians
By Brink Lindsey, senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of the upcoming book Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism . This article is adapted from the book.
That President Bush has called the first war of the 21st century has much in common with the great wars of the century just past. Now, as then, the root cause of the carnage lies in radical discontent with modern industrial society a hydra-headed historical phenomenon that is well described as the Industrial Counterrevolution.
At first glance, shadowy Islamist terrorists look very different from any enemy we have ever faced. And indeed, the tactics they employ are novel, as are the tactics that must be used to defeat them. But the fundamental nature of our present adversaries, once seen plainly, is all too familiar. The evil we confront today is the evil of totalitarianism: Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and their coconspirators are the modern-day successors of Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot.
The atrocities of today's terrorists are the last shudder of a historical convulsion of unprecedented fury and destructive power. It was spawned by the spiritual confusion that accompanied the coming of the modern age, and consists of a profound hostility toward the disciplines and opportunities of human freedom. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire we thought we were done with totalitarianism. But it lives still, and lives to do harm. As we prepare once more to face this old and dangerous adversary, we need to reacquaint ourselves with its origins and nature.
To understand what gave rise to the totalitarian plague, you have to appreciate the radical historical discontinuity represented by the technological dynamism of the past 150 years. In the second half of the 19th century, various strands of economic development new energy sources, new production techniques, breakthroughs in transportation and communication were woven into new organizational forms to produce a wealth-creating capacity of unprecedented scale, complexity, and power. It was during this great confluence that the scientific method was first systematically integrated into economic life; technological and organizational innovation became normal, routine, and ubiquitous. Nobel prize-winning economist Douglass North refers to the "wedding of science and technology" as the "Second Economic Revolution" the first being the advent of agriculture ten millennia ago.
The Industrial Revolution was the economic expression of a much more general transformation, a radical new form of social order whose defining feature was the embrace of open-ended discovery: open-endedness in the pursuit of knowledge (provisional and refutable hypotheses supplanting revelation and authority), open-endedness in economic life (innovation and free-floating market transactions in place of tradition and the "just price"), open-endedness in politics (power emerging from the people rather than the divine right of kings and hereditary aristocracies), and open-endedness in life paths (following your dreams instead of knowing your place). In short, industrialization both advanced and reflected a larger dynamic of liberalization a dramatic and qualitative shift in the dimensions of social freedom.
The emergence of this new liberal order in the North Atlantic world came as a series of jolting shocks. Kings were knocked from their thrones or else made subservient to parliaments; nobles were stripped of rank and power. Science displaced the earth from the center of the Universe, dragged humanity into the animal kingdom, and cast a pall of doubt over the most cherished religious beliefs. As if these assaults on age-old verities were not enough, the coup de grace was then applied with the eruption of mechanized, urbanized society. The natural, easy rhythms of country life gave way to the clanging, clock-driven tempo of the city and the factory, and new technologies of miraculous power and demonic destructiveness burst forth. Vast riches were heaped up in the midst of brutal hardship and want; new social classes erupted and struggled for position.
In countries outside of the North Atlantic world, the experience of modernization was, if anything, even more vertiginous. Social changes were often accelerated by the confrontation, all at once, with Western innovations that had taken decades or centuries to develop originally. Moreover, these changes were experienced not as homegrown developments, but as real or figurative conquests by foreign powers. Modernity thus came as a humiliation a shocking realization that the local culture was hopelessly backward compared with that of the new foreign masters.
It is unsurprising that, in all the wrenching social tumult, many people felt lost adrift in a surging flux without landmarks or firm ground. The deepest thinkers of the 19th century identified this anomie as the spiritual crisis of the age: Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, while Max Weber wrote of society's "disenchantment." But it was Karl Marx who traced most clearly the connection between this spiritual crisis and the economic upheavals of his day. As he and Friedrich Engels wrote in this breathtaking passage from the Communist Manifesto:
Thus did industrialization beget a massive backlash a reaction against the dizzying plenitude of open-endedness, a lurch toward some antidote to the jarring, jangling uncertainty of a world where "all that is solid melts into air." The Industrial Counterrevolution was protean and, in its many guises, captured minds of almost every persuasion. But in all its forms, it held out this promise: that political power, whether at the national or global level, could recreate the simplicity, certainty, and solidarity of preindustrial life. The appeal of that promise powered a disastrous century of collectivist experimentation.
The promise of redemption through politics of reintegration into some larger whole was present even in the milder incarnations of the collectivist impulse. As against the "chaos" and "anarchy" of the market order, a central state with expanded fiscal and regulatory powers offered the reassurance that somebody was "in charge." In particular, the nationalization or regulation of previously autonomous private enterprises reasserted the primacy of the group, which had always held sway in earlier times. In all the various permutations of incremental collectivism social democracy, the welfare and regulatory state, Keynesian "fine tuning," development planning the emotional appeal of group cohesion buttressed the intellectual arguments for greater government involvement in economic life.
But it was in the radical centralizing movements of totalitarianism that the rebellion against open-endedness overwhelmed all other considerations. Robert Nisbet, in his seminal Quest for Community, identified the rise of totalitarianism in modern times as an effort to recreate, through the state, the lost sense of community that had obtained in the premodern world. "The greatest appeal of the totalitarian party, Marxist or other," wrote Nisbet, "lies in its capacity to provide a sense of moral coherence and communal membership to those who have become, to one degree or another, victims of the sense of exclusion from the ordinary channels of belonging in society."
And in his great but too little remembered 1936 book, The Good Society, Walter Lippmann diagnosed the totalitarian threat as a "collectivist counter-revolution" against industrial society's complex division of labor. "[T]he industrial revolution," he wrote, "has instituted a way of life organized on a very large scale, with men and communities no longer autonomous but elaborately interdependent, with change no longer so gradual as to be imperceptible, but highly dynamic within the span of each man's experience. No more profound or pervasive transformation of habits and values and ideas was ever imposed so suddenly on the great mass of mankind." Opposition to that transformation, he continued, had hatched the monstrous tyrannies that at that time menaced the world:
The misbegotten secular religions of totalitarianism won their devoted and ruthless followings by offering an escape from the stresses of modernity specifically, from the agoraphobic panic that liberal open-endedness roused. They aspired to "re-enchant" the world with grand dreams of class or racial destiny dreams that integrated their adherents into communities of true believers, and elevated them from lost souls to agents of great and inexorable forces. With their insidiously appealing lies, the false faiths of communism and fascism launched their mad rebellion against the liberal rigors of questioning and self-doubt and so against tolerance and pluralism and peaceable persuasion. They inflicted upon a century their awful, evil perversion of modernity: the instrumentalities of mass production and mass prosperity twisted into engines of mass destruction and mass murder.
The liberal revolution survived the reactionary challenge. Fascism was put to rout, at horrible cost, in the great struggle of World War II; Communism was contained and waited out until it imploded, just a decade ago. And coincident with Communism's demise has come a global rediscovery of liberal ideas and institutions. Free markets and democracy have registered impressive gains around the world. However, the dead hand of the collectivist past still exerts a powerful influence: The inertia of old mindsets and vested interests blocks progress at every turn, and so our new era of globalization is a messy and sometimes volatile one. But it is an era of hope, and of possibility.
As the horrible events of September 11 made clear, we are not yet finished with the totalitarian threat. In the tragic, broken societies of the Islamic world where free markets have gained little foothold, and democracy even less radical hostility to modernity still festers on a large scale. And it has given rise to a distinctive form of totalitarianism: one that uses a perverted form of religious faith, rather than any purely secular ideology, as its reactionary mythos. For the past quarter-century, radical Islamist fundamentalism has roiled the nations in which it arose. Now it has reached out to wage a direct, frontal assault on its antithesis its "Great Satan": the United States.
Despite the trappings of religious fervor, Islamist totalitarianism is strikingly similar to its defunct, secular cousins. It is an expression, not of spirituality, but of anomie: in particular, a seething resentment of Western prosperity and strength. Consider the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 to resist the British presence in Egypt, the Brotherhood was the original radical Islamist terror network. As detailed in David Pryce-Jones' powerful The Closed Circle, the official account of its formation records this statement at the group's initial meeting: "We know not the practical way to reach the glory of Islam and serve the welfare of Muslims. We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction. Lo, we see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and dignity."
And just like its Communist and fascist predecessors Islamist totalitarianism seeks redemption through politics. It is animated by the pursuit of temporal power: the destruction of the "decadent" (i.e., liberal) West and creation of a pan-Islamic utopian state featuring unrestrained centralization of authority. Whether the utopian blueprint calls for mullahs, commissars, or Gauleiters to wield absolute power is of secondary importance: It is the utopian idea itself the millennial fantasy of a totalitarian state that unites all the radical movements of the Industrial Counterrevolution.
The point bears emphasis. Radical Islamist fundamentalism not does content itself with mere rejection of the West's alleged vices. If that were all there was to it, its program might be simply to stage a retreat from modernity's wickedness to do, in other words, what the Amish have done. But Islamist totalitarianism, though it claims otherworldly inspiration, is obsessed with worldly power and influence. It does not merely reject the West; it wants to beat the West at its own game of worldly success. Osama bin Laden is constantly claiming that the United States is weak and can be defeated; he and his colleagues lust for power and believe they can attain it. And so, although it attempts to appropriate a particular religious tradition, Islamist totalitarianism is not, at bottom, a religious movement. It is a political movement a quest for political power.
Indeed, Islamist fundamentalism shares with other totalitarian movements a commitment to centralization not just of political power, but of economic control as well. Consider Iran, where the first and greatest victory for Islamist totalitarianism was won. As Shaul Bakhash describes in his Reign of the Ayatollahs:
Today, the sectaries of radical Islamism continue to uphold various collectivist strains of "Islamic economics" trumpeted as righteous alternatives to the secular and individualist corruption of "Eurocentric" globalization.
Before the September 11 attacks, it appeared that Islamist totalitarianism was a movement in decline. In the decades since the Iranian revolution, formidable Islamist opposition movements have built up around the Islamic world, but totalitarian regimes have come to power only in the Sudan and Afghanistan backwaters even by regional standards. Elsewhere, insurgencies have been crushed (in Syria) or at least brutally repressed (in Algeria, Egypt, and Chechnya). In Iran, revolutionary fervor steadily gave way to disillusionment and cynicism; the reformist government of Mohammed Khatami has moved gingerly toward a more moderate course.
In the wake of September 11, it is unclear whether the U.S. military response will precipitate a new wave of radicalization in the Islamic world one which might topple existing regimes and bring totalitarians to power. It is unclear whether terrorists will be able to outmaneuver the escalation of security and intelligence activity now underway, and bring off further successful attacks in the United States or elsewhere. It is, in short, unclear what further horrors must be endured, at home and around the world, because of Islamist totalitarianism.
But this much is clear: The United States is now at war with the totalitarians of radical Islamism. And in prior conflicts with the totalitarian impulse of the Industrial Counterrevolution, the United States has been undefeated. Americans triumphed first over fascism, then over Communism movements with ideologies of potentially global appeal, and with political bases in militarily formidable great powers. Americans will rise again to this latest challenge. Unlike its predecessors, radical Islamism speaks only to the disaffected minority of a particular region, and none of the governments of that region holds any hope of prevailing against the resolute exercise of U.S. power. However long the present war must last, and however costly it must be, the final outcome cannot be doubted: interment of Islamist totalitarianism in what President Bush so stirringly referred to as "history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."
What a completely arrogant and wrong-headed analysis.
On the contrary. This is a PERFECT description of the resentment of ordinary Muslims and their religious leaders.
The ayatollahs in Iran have to fight their own people to keep Western influences from their young.
Envy may not be the only reason for Muslim contempt, but it's the primary reason.
I guess the Saudis really give a damn when we bomb Saddam Hussein. Get real.....
Utopians are the enemy ... be they communist, capitalist, theocratic or atheist or merely themost malleable of all ... the strictly materialistic.
Some hallmarks of utopia include: hubris, hate, faith in man, the alchemy of pragmatism, faith without reason (or reason without faith) and -- always -- an ability to distinguish and capitalize on the relative value of certain human lives.
But foremost is the ability to rationalize ... without which the militant atheists might never have struck a bargain to split with the soulless capitalist the baby the eugenicists were birthing for them.
I see no reason whatsoever to believe (as do some libertarians) that capitalism=liberty/democracy and that Lenin's NEP is somehow antithetical to "western materialism". It is not. The militant atheist Rand is a gateway drug of Convergence into rank Materialism for BOTH Left and Right.
There are other celebrated schisms which don't really exist. I see no reason to believe in the ballyhooed Sino-Soviet split. I was blown away by the frankness of Putin's latest surreal pronouncement -- that Germany not let Hitler or the Nazis preclude it from taking its rightful leadership position. All of these -- much less the increasingly communist/fascist profile of our own nation -- suggest the Convergence on which they've been working is proceeding apace.
And if you dare to take a peek at the "spiritual" side of New Age "Noosphere" evil, you'll find that same Convergence at work. It's all of a piece.
I know the lunkheads think I'm lying but I'm not so much a conspiracy theorist as I am convinced that one's take on the essentials of reality -- the infinite value and absolute right to life of every human being, for example -- quite naturally bends a person's actions, intent and convictions into service of the One Side or the Other.
We're sunk, basically. It's not so much that we've been destroyed from within and have no substance or Common Sense left, but our 1.2 million abortions a year and a President that uses a spoonful of Scripture to help the ECSR go down evidence quite clearly that we've actually embraced exactly those fundamentally evil premises which leave us poised to take the next ... and the next ... and the next Reasonable Step.
Besides, failing to be consistently good OR consistently evil, we're at the mercy of those whose Consistent Evil leaves them in the catbird seat of picking and choosing as they please what button to push, what agenda to crank, what faction to support, what "humanitarian" gesture to make, what confusion to cause in the continual and vigilant march toward the same objectives they've always had.
They describe it as being "on rails", you know, while the West waxes about its wishy washy "vision thing". No contest. The light at the end of the tunnel we think we see is the oncoming train what's going to crush us flat.
Envy may not be the only reason for Muslim contempt, but it's the primary reason.
Where do you get these absurd notions?
Just because you're a braindead American doesn't mean the rest of the world isn't full of folks -- however rich or poor, ignorant or educated -- who've sufficient common sense to recognize you and your culture as hopelessly dead-eyed decadent.
Well Askie, let me make a suggestion... It's friday, get outta the house and get down to the quarter and get siht faced drunk...
Where else do you think I got the courage finally to approach the guys at Engine No. 9 to see if they'd be interested in some beef jerky and maybe a cheesecake?
When I say "we" I'm speaking in terms of our Government. Our government is going to be bested at every turn until it assumes and acts on the moral conviction and with the will of which MANY, if not most, of its citizens do.
Our government doesn't particularly "suffer" from the scourge of drugs or the threat of terrorism ... our government grows Bigger and Fatter and More Powerful, from what I can tell.
It's the people who suffer and it's the people who'll grow wise and who'll make the difference. Where there are folks willing to lay down their lives for the liberties and self-evident truths enumerated in our Declaration (and we find them often in exactly those nations who've been under the thumb of dictatorship), we'll win.
Where we just have a bunch of goons who want us to take our Clean Hands bombs and wipe Afghanistan off the face of the earth "in kind", we lose.
I have every faith in the triumph of the human spirit, in the will and ability of individuals ... and in Common Sense. But that faith is not somehow restricted by nationality or ethnicity or faith. The US by NO MEANS has a monopoly on "goodness" ... particularly where the US has contraverted its own founding principles.
Being that it's my signature Puerto Rican Rum cheesecake I'll be making this evening ... it's quite possible both the meat and I will be marinating nicely. A pity you can't come hang -- as do most of my neighbors from time to time -- while doh-poppin' on the porch. I suspect if we sat and talked you might better understand where I'm coming from.
It must be a heavy burden you bear to be so estranged from your culture. Are you really as unhappy a person as you so often sound?
My personal opinion is that in many ways, American culture is less decadent than it once was. Folks as a whole used to be far more brutal in their prejudices, ignorance and bigotry than is largely true at present. And in many ways the average American is more polite and considerate than was true a couple of generations ago. Nor despite the rhetoric, do I think our culture today is more a culture of death than it was in some age past; indeed, I think the reverse is true.
("Where do I begin," asked the nasty witch, cackling and chuckling to herself and throwing her mother's admonition: "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," to the wind.)
"...thus did industrialization beget a massive backlash..."
Let's start with that word--backlash--a favorite word of, for example, totalitarian feminist thinkers as they try to penetrate the inconceivable evidence that some people are not wholly on their side. "Backlash" attempts to contain what may be a RATIONAL CRITIQUE into childish game of crack the whip. Only crayola crayons and thick stick figures are necessary to address a backlash
Bravely the author of this essay, Brink Lindsey, battles his way through a forest of alternative viewpoints--blinkers firmly in place. Like Galahad, he rigorously maintains his intellectual virginity, manfully refusing to acknowledge the presence of the 800 pound cockroach scuttling around noisily in the corner.
Yes folks, along with those dreadful post enlightenment politicalbacklashes--Fascism and Communism (by the way, does anybody know why our President didn't finger the latter in his epochal speech? I do.) another system rose up to do battle with confusion, chaos, dislocation, longing for community, and love of toys.
And who might that be? Could it be that Mr. Lindsey does not see this fast-breeding, large-breasted (odd for a cockroach) THIRD member of the Holy Trinity of modernism because--and I blush to suggest it--he worships this diety and cannot conceive that anyone else on earth has any reservations about his deity?
With this little gem:"...Modernity thus came as a humiliation a shocking realization that the local culture was hopelessly backward compared with that of the new foreign masters...." our hero attempts to shout down the shadows that are stalking him--tempting him away from a life of clean living, high thinking and sound investing.
The belief that envy motivates every person who rebels against the American Way Of Life is the ultimate juju bead in the arsenal of the Free Marketeer. No other possibility exists in his mind. Not because those possibilites are not there waiting to be examined, but rather because acknowleging the limitations of the Third, and most resilient godhead of the Enlightenement's Holy Trinity will unleash a new...a new....oh dear, say it ain't so....A new Enlightenment. A Great Leap Forward. Something unthinkable, indescribable to the Spenglerian "Matter Of Fact Man".
Self described "conservatives"--who are rejoicing at the "tough talk" of body bags, the "refreshing" secrecy of the military campaign, the lack of a declared war--how old fashioned--, the lack of a certain enemy, the "warm national "unity" dribbling over the country like...well...just like something that dribbles warmly--had better pause and ask themselves for whom the bell tolls. For whom is this "crusade" (that must not speak its name) being waged? Upon whose altar stone are we offering ouselves as sacrifices?
independentmind, when a civilization is nearing extinction, it is indeed shallow to characterize the prevailing emotion as envy. The once great militant Arab civilization is fighting for survival, desperately.
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