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Fri, 02 Dec 2005

Conspiracy Theories

I generally try to avoid getting political in this blog, because (being a mercenary sort) I'm not inclined to piss off one sector or another of my audience and potential customer base. (Hey, you can read, can't you?) But I think I can safely admit to a certain degree of fascination with the policy train-wreck currently unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic (and, to a lesser extent, in London).

It is, perhaps, more important to study the political circumstances that made the Iraq war possible than to consider the war itself. At this point there's relatively little wiggle room in Iraq; it's more than two years since the invasion and it's doubtful that any new directions in western foreign policy can make much difference to the eventual outcome -- too much water (and blood) has flowed under the bridges on the Tigris and Euphrates. The big questions we ought to be worrying about are: how did we get into this mess, and more importantly, how do we avoid getting into similar messes in future?

First of all, it's apparent that the mess in question is the outcome of several interacting political processes, which go back a very long way indeed. I'm not talking about George W. Bush and his need to one-up his daddy here. I'm not talking about Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney. It'd be tempting to blame Winston Churchill -- after all, he's dead (so he can neither defend himself nor be personally harmed), but he, too, is a Johnny-come-Lately in the terms I'm thinking of. If we really want to assign blame, the person to nail it on is that long-dead Liberal British Prime Minister, William Gladstone.

There are no bedrock certainties in politics other than change. The 1874 general election, into which Gladstone led the Liberal Party to defeat, was fought on such issues as the abolition of the income tax and the pressing need to invade lots of third world principalities and bring enlightenment (not to mention Christianity) to the natives. (His rivals, the notorious tax-and-spend Conservative followers of Disraeli were in contrast to go on to raise the income tax in order to pay for the peaceful purchase of the Suez Canal.)

Looking at the policies and the labels from today's perspective is like looking into a curious funhouse mirror version of politics as we know it: the 19th century Liberal Party was largely the party of the zealot free-marketeers, today's self-identified Libertarians, with a smattering of socialist radicals muttering into their beards, and a curious mixture of Benthamite utilitarians trying to remake society as a smooth-running machine. The Conservatives were, in contrast, both the party of the rich landowner rentier class and the aspiring shopkeepers and mercantilists. If there was an axis of debate that defined mid-Victorian politics it seems to have been a tug-of-war between the Libertarians and the Utilitarians.

Having lost the election, Gladstone got a bad case of do-goodism (tempered by religious help-yourself-ism) over a nasty little uprising then going on in the Balkans, at that time under the thumb of the Ottoman empire. His pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876) set the pattern for much wrong-headed thinking on the subject of the middle east in the English-speaking world: as others have noted, the western attempts to answer the question of what to do with the East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire took little or no account of the interests of the people who lived there. And the acuity of the question became severe once the Versailles Treaty threw into sharp relief the concurrent collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the dependency of modern western war-fighting methods on the availability of oil (which was, coincidentally, something the Ottoman Empire sat upon a great deal of).

Now, let us hit the fast-forward button and zip across several time zones and nearly a century of history. From 1953 and the CIA-backed coup against Mossadegh in Iran onwards, and definitely since the Suez Crisis of 1956, the major western influence in the Middle East has clearly been the United States. And American politics and foreign policy on the eve of the 21st century is not like unto British 19th and early 20th century foreign policy -- or is it?

Well, looking deeper than the resemblance between current plans to replace US troops in Iraq with air power and Winston Churchill's poison gas memo or the use of RAF bombers to police Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the 1920 uprising, it seems to me that the really interesting point is the doctrinal belief that it is possible to invade a nation and completely change the ideology of the governed -- a belief that is not unique to and original to today's neoconservatives, but which was shared with a number of other political or religious creeds. In the 19th century, it was the Gladstonite missionary zeal that contemplated the conversion (or at least the subjugation) of the heathens to the cause of modernizing, expansionist Christianity. Today, there seems to be a similar political dynamic at work in the inner circles of American foreign policy as formulated by the post-cold-war Right: from the Project for a New American Century to the White House is but a short hop.

The key insight I'd like to bring to your attention at this point is that the purported political axis of the latter half of the twentieth century -- between capitalism and socialism or communism -- is a canard; in historical terms it's an aberration, for the historical pattern is a struggle between the proponents of authoritarianism and those of what is today called libertarianism (and used to be Liberalism). The aberrant conditions of the cold war made for strange bed-fellows, so that the socialist and capitalist factions were themselves coalitions of libertarian and authoritarian types: and today the old power axes are breaking down and the deeper historical factions are surfacing.

It has been argued that there are two key influences on the neoconservative policy makers: the Shachtmanite version of Trotskyism, a somewhat mutant American variant, was clearly an influence of many of the neocons in their earlier 1960s incarnation, and the views of right-wing crypto-Nieztchian philosopher Leo Strauss. There's a curious intersection between the views of Trotsky (it is the job of the vanguard to lead the proletariat but not to represent them, to form their opinions and give shape to the revolution that will overthrow the bourgeoisie) and those of Strauss (the rise of the bourgeosie is a tragedy for western civilization: the correct order for society is one oriented towards struggle, led by warriors whose actions will be shaped by an elite of behind-the-scenes philosopher-princes). And it's worth noting that former leading denizens of Trotskyite organizations -- in the UK, the former Revolutionary Communist Party is the leading example, as dissected by George Monbiot -- have developed a habit (especially noticable since 1979) of suddenly turning up wearing suits and driving BMWs while working for right wing think-tanks.

So here's a neat conspiracy theory for you.

Trotskyism, like old-fashioned muscular British liberalism with its noncomformist Christian side-track, is to some extent an elitist ideology that expects its followers to shape the world (and especially to direct the vast mass of shapeless unopinionated ordinary folks). It is 1979. You are sitting with your mates in a squat, discussing the writings of the great man, when a thought occurs to you. Capitalism is, of necessity, doomed -- in the long run. But in the short run, sitting in a damp squat discussing Trotsky while living on lentils is uncomfortable and dull. Wouldn't it be neat if you could further the revolution while making out like a bandit? What you do is, you buy a suit and you get a respectable job as a researcher at a political think-tank -- a right-wing one, because right now the right are flailing around looking for clues about how to overturn the frankly counter-revolutionary social democratic consensus of the 1960s and 1970s. If anyone asks, you just tell them you've seen the light. You then get the capitalists to pay you to feed them outrageous nonsense -- policies that in the long run will either punish the ignorant masses for not following your advice when you were there to offer it, or that will radicalize them and goad them into a pre-revolutionary frenzy. Policies such as, oh, de-nationalizing the air traffic control system, privatizing the water companies, replacing the electoral machinery with easily corrupted voting machines and the free press with a neatly disciplined network of media machines.

It's a pretty good wheeze, and you and your mates -- over a period of a couple of decades -- get well bedded in in the west: you've got your Porsches and Maseratis and Armani suits and you're still working towards the revolution! It's the best of both worlds, you get to have your ideology and eat cake. But there are some bits of the world that won't buckle under, and every so often it's necessary to make an example of one of the inconvenient independents pour encourager les autres. Like, oh, that fascist dictatorship over there in the middle east, the one with all the oil. And, hey, why don't we use them as a test bed?

We'll say we're going to Install Democracy, then we drop the ball and radicalize the hell out of them by stealing everything that isn't nailed down, and if that induces a Trotskyite revolution, wa-hey! -- and if not, well, if it induces an Islamicist revolution instead, who cares? It's a new inconvenient independent, a new broken state, and we can put them in the queue for re-processing later. Meanwhile, it plays at home by increasing our strategy of tension, damaging conservative patriots' faith in the ability of their government to organize a piss-up in a brewery, and in the long term this works towards the eventual goal of bringing the revolution home. All we need is a handsome rock-jawed front man to stick up on top of the tree, waving the flag and explaining that this is necessary in grunts of one syllable that they'll all think they understand.

In short: the Invasion of Iraq, and the forthcoming Invasion of Whereverstan that will follow it whenever the hangover shows signs of wearing off, do not serve any rational foreign policy agenda. Rather, they're about sustaining a strategy of tension that plays to the agenda of entryist factions who are gradually reverting from 20th century play rules to those of the 19th century. And attempting to make sense of Iraq (or indeed, of the neoconservatives) without an understanding of historical Liberalism, is a losing game.

(Oh, and yes, I am arguing that George W. Bush is a communist dupe. Good night, and God Bless America.)

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 17:28 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


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