Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 13 – 20 December 2013

Conflicts Forum

What is the ‘state of the nation’ – or more correctly of the Arab Middle East ‘nation’– at the end of 2013?  We all know already that it is not good; and we do not wish to add to (largely misplaced) gloom, by rehearsing all its woes (erosion of its various models for governance – Gulf, Turkish, Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood), etc.); the fraying of structures of thought and of national institutions; the implosion of identity; the pervasive dysfunctionality of state systems, the fracturing of the social contract and the rise of insurrections of various types  anti-‘system’ – but to ask what it is that we are witnessing here? And, to ask why it is that the West has so misread the Middle East.  This is an apt question – particularly at a moment when a succession of western notables and institutional figures are now saying (after two years of conflict and suffering) that perhaps the best outcome in Syria, after all, would be for President Assad to remain in power.  Why is it, that so much has been misread, so often – and with such damaging results?

To understand better what has been happening recently, we should perhaps recall an earlier period of regional trauma. It is not an identical comparison to today, but it helps explain, we believe, the current crisis: It is connected to what historians term the ‘Great Transformation’ that began in Europe in the 18th century. The latter was founded on a moral philosophy that saw aggregate human welfare to be contingent upon the efficient operation of markets. Closely associated with this was another idea, taken up by English Puritans, that had its roots deep in Anglo-Saxon history. It saw the ‘invisible hand’ of Providence also at work in politics as in economics; and that this ‘invisible hand’ would (if only it were left alone) intervene to bring about another ‘ideal’ outcome. This notion held that the jostling and hurly-burly of political contention between the Anglo-Saxon tribes in the earliest of their societies, somehow had given rise to a spontaneous harmony and political order. (This was more mythical than true). But it was from this notion of a political ‘market’ – where competition was made harmonious and orderly through the intrusion of the ‘invisible hand’ that English Puritans got their belief that Anglo-Saxon institutions and democratic structures represented the epitome of personal freedom and justice – and that these structures had arisen spontaneously.  These ideas in their entirety were carried to America, and still remain influential today. 

This hugely powerful way of thinking dominated western politics for more than 300 years.  And by the 1920s, its penetration into the Middle East had brought it to the very ‘brink’ of disaster.  It was in crisis – and holding on by its fingernails.  As in Europe earlier, the harsh impact of the social engineering, and of the population displacement, demanded by this style of thinking (making efficient markets), was truly traumatic. The stresses of industrialization and of population displacement were such that in the 19th century they had taken Europe to bloody revolution. These western ideas, including the notion that economic reform was best achieved through secularisation, were taken up with the heady zeal of ‘converts’ by the leaders of Turkey, Persia and Egypt.

Approximately five million European Muslims were driven from their homes between 1821 and 1922 as the West leveraged mainly Christian dominated nation-states in former Ottoman western provinces.  The Young Turk determination to emulate Europe’s secular liberal-market modernisation in Turkey came at terrible cost. One million Armenians died, 250,000 Assyrians perished, and one million Greek Orthodox Anatolians were expelled. Kurdish identity was suppressed, and Islam was demonised and suppressed by Kemal Ataturk. Islamic institutions were closed and the 1,400-year-old caliphate was abolished.  All this to create a strong, centralized nation-state that was powerful enough to bring about a ‘modern’ liberal market structure.

Less visible, but as damaging, was the concomitant uprooting of men and women from communities, their dis-embedding from culture, their severance from tradition and values.   Dis-orientated, de-cultured and adrift, many slid either towards radical socialism, or to Islamic revolution.  

Re-grouping after the Great War, the established Powers set up systems of ‘competing power-blocs’ (setting ethnic, sectarian or tribal differences against each other) throughout the region in order to leverage European influence, but the resultant ‘authorities’, lacking any basis in a semblance of social contract, could only be maintained in power through the heavy-handed use of security-forces and repression of rival power centres. Not surprisingly, in the 1920s many young people looked for new thinking – and became fierce opponents of the ‘system’. 

For the last 30 odd years, the West (and again) its allied regional ‘interests’, have been in the grip of an equally powerful set of ideas, which is the neo-liberal orientation of American conservatism (the traditional orientation of American conservatism being mainly isolationist and non-interventionist).  Over the last decade these powerful ideas, pursued by the West and their adherents in the region, have proved to be highly damaging.  It is not just the millions displaced from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria, and the wars and suffering, but more significantly (and again), this has been an episode of political thinking in which people have been ‘individualised’, dis-embedded from community, from traditional values, attachments to locality, to their identities and therefore severed from their self-esteem.  Indeed, this has been one of the prime objectives of globalization:  In order to achieve a globalized ‘modernity’, the adherents of  this orientation of thinking were much taken with the need to create a tabula rasa – a wiping, and reset of  human psychology, to loosen the conditioning of tradition in order to prepare people for ‘modernity’: hence their interest in shock and awe, and the psychologically transformative effects of crisis.

Unlike in the earlier period from 1820 – 1920 which was more structural and physical, this last ‘transformation’ (through which we are still passing) was not intended to be so physical (though it has been that for the millions of refugees), but more a ‘searing of consciousness’ triggered by transformative, life-changing change (e.g. Iraq) – and by ‘narrative’ and use of the media. In the case of the Middle East, the narrative has been that of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ (the two ‘big ideas’ from old Europe’s Puritan-driven Great Transformation. Cromwell used exactly the same narrative to the English Parliament in 1658).  One problem here is that in the current era notions of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ were quickly subsumed into the Carter doctrine (whereby the US would not tolerate an unfriendly government emerging in the Middle East), so that little changed: the Sykes-Picot ruling oligarchs simply carried on – underpinned by strong (and partisan) security-forces.

Essentially then – since the 1920s – there has been no real social contract between the people and their leaders, or vice versa.  More than that, there has been no effort to build nations or societies.  This is particularly true in the Gulf, where an abundance of petro-dollars substituted for the task of nation-building.  Problems were just bought off.  Instead, throughout the region a hugely wealthy, exclusive elite emerged, who severed themselves from their native roots and communities in order better to merge into the ‘virtual’, de-cultured, community of the truly wealthy.  The classical economic doctrine of ‘trickle down’ economic benefit simply did not happen in the Middle East. 

It is from a not dissimilar Russian experience that President Putin has been developing a conservative anti-system ideology (as a result of Russia’s own experience first with identity dis-embedding Marxist ‘modernity’; and then with globalising neo-liberal ‘modernity’).  In a recent speech to the Douma, Putin spoke of the need for a new ‘conservatism’.  This conservatism is to be defined, as a new approach, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, founded on [the fact]«[le] fait que tout [progrès], aujourd’hui, entraînera forcément un résultat négatif.»  In other words, that the pursuit of modernity in the neo-liberal approach has become everywhere damaging – and strategically incoherent in its outcomes.

Putin argues that the disparity between the traditional values [of Russians], of a sense of being Russian, of inherited family values, of ways of bringing up children – and the new European ‘space of values’ emanating out from universalism was too great – and that the former must be protected. In other words, each nation and culture is unique, and each values, above all else, its own particular identity.  Putin is in effect suggesting a new strategic conservatism that refuses liberal globalism, and which falls back on the nationalist dimension in its main concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy.  He described such values as ‘conservative’, but not in the way of preventing progress, but as a way to prevent a regress – a fall into the moral abyss.  ‘Progress’ in this definition is not the progress of modernity, but rather a desire to return to that which is human; or, as Baudelaire put it « [P]rogresser, pour eux, ce n’est pas avancer, ni conquérir, mais revenir et retrouver… […] Le progrès donc, le seul progrès possible, consiste à vouloir retrouver l’Unité perdue..» (See here for a fuller discussion of the implications of Putin’s ideas [in French]).

In a sense, Putin has put his finger on the nature of the crisis in the Middle East (though he was speaking about Russia).  Patrick Buchanan (an American ‘conservative’ – though not of the neo-con hue) notes, in an article entitled “Is Putin One of US?”, [that Putin] is seeking to redefine the “Us vs. Them” world conflict of the future – as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west whose globalising values now ‘discomfort’ many nations.

“We do not infringe on anyone’s interests, said Putin, ‘or try to teach anyone how to live’. The adversary he has identified is not the America we grew up in, but the America we live in” [Buchanan writes], “which Putin sees as pagan and wildly progressive. Without naming any country, Putin attacked “attempts to enforce more progressive development models” on other nations, which have led to “decline, barbarity and big blood,” a straight shot at the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Egypt.”, Buchanan suggests.

Buchanan almost says it, but not quite. Putin’s ‘conservative’ formulation is anti-polar, anti-system – and, would be recognized by many in the region to be a resistance stance.  President Assad or Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would applaude. It does not take much to imagine how appealing these ideas will be in the Middle East: It gives the basis for a new regional platform around which states may gather, and which would give Russian policy a clear direction. 

And, in another way too, it resonates with a much earlier debate of the twentieth century: how does the Middle East (or Muslims generally) live in the contemporary world, without losing community, locality, tradition, values and identity.  (The Arab uprisings were deeply focused on the loss of values in politics and in economics and in the consequences on the fabric of society).  It is also a question that has surfaced in Europe too in respect to the ‘great transformation’ of southern Europe known as ‘austerity’ doctrine (witness, for example, the anti-system protests taking place it Italy now. There is a deep underlying sense that Europe’s elites are responsible for the tearing apart of Europe’s social contract).

No one has answers to this (it is easier to formulate a ‘return to a way of living as a human’, than to make this notion into something truly political).  But this, nonetheless is the issue.  It will be a viperous path ahead.  Some people literally will go to any lengths to preserve the status quo; some to institute assertive Islam; some to institute assertive secularism; some to institute revolution, and some to burn the system. It would be a brave person who would suggest that out of all this will come stability, and the return to order in the coming years.

So why did so many in the West misread the ground in the Middle East so often?  It comes back, we suggest, to ‘narrative’ – the narrative of ‘democracy’, the narrative of ‘freedom’ – or even the narrative that ‘President Assad’s fall is a matter of when – not if’.  These ‘narratives’ as we noted, have a Puritan pedigree of several centuries and are deeply rooted.  However, in this era, political thinking within the ‘neo-Con’ American conservative orientation became highly disquieted by young Americans’ ambiguity towards America’s war in Vietnam.  Picking up on thinking originally articulated by Carl Schmitt, and subsequently by the Chicago School, these thinkers concluded that if a state is to maintain its power and position, it cannot afford such moral ambiguity: the answer, they concluded, was to narrate enemies as so completely ‘other’ and ‘evil’ that moral ambiguity becomes impossible. Hence the insistence on a single narrative.  ‘Narrative’ in this view, becomes the most powerful weapon of so-called fourth generation warfare (see here). Narrative becomes ‘the reality’ which ‘we make’ (as we heard from certain Neo-Con ‘conservatives’ in 2003).

Its power is undoubted (e.g. in Syria), but such insistence on a simplistic, black and white narrative (whilst effective as a tool of psychological warfare), is a double edged sword.  For it also eliminates from view all the other aspects to a conflict.  They simply are disallowed – as damaging to the maintenance of an unchallenged narrative. Ultimately policy-makers come to believe their own narrative (and are trapped by it) – until events (such as in Syria) come finally and painfully to expose its falsities.



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