Saturday, March 17, 2007
Triumph of unreason. posted by Richard Seymour
If there is a better example of magical thinking than the supposition that "will trumps wealth" and that the main cause of America's disaster in Iraq is media pessimism, I don't know of it. Those arguments and that phrase are attributed to Andrew Roberts, the far right British historian, at a literary salon run by the Bourbon monarch a while ago. The account of Irwin Stelzer, himself the editor of a slight volume on neoconservatism, is intended to electrify the faithful. He tell us of how nonpartisan historians will recall an era in which the President flattered the literati (such unimpeachable intellects as Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, as well as a Wall Street Journal editor and a right-wing theologian), and issues such stirring sentiments as "History informs the present". Bush circulates Natan Sharanksy and Mark Steyn books. No lame duck, he is "a man who believes the constituency to which he must ultimately answer is the Divine Presence". He has not, then, got round to the Thomas Paine that Hitchens has been sending to him.
There is much ado about Good and Evil, and the President engages in a sort of theological debate with his bedazzled admirers. Most interesting, however, is the account of Andrew Roberts' perorations. He insisted that Bush should look to a future alliance with Gordon Brown, rather than the Tory leader, because "Brown admires America, is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and will continue to support Britain's nuclear submarine program" and Cameron couldn't be trusted on either of those fronts because he once said something about Britain's 'slavish' devotion to US policy, and because William Hague said that Israel's attack on Lebanon was 'disproportionate'. Roberts' reassures Bush that British "anti-Americanism" is nothing to bother about, and urges him to take note of five lessons from what he has the nerve to refer to as 'history'. They include the recommendation not to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, because a timetable for departure caused up to a million deaths in India; not to be sapped by media pessimism because "will trumps wealth", and the rich Romans only lost to the barbarians because they lacked the will to fight and survive; not to "hesitate to intern our enemies for long, indefinite periods of time. That policy worked in Ireland and during World War II. Release should only follow victory"; to cling to the alliance of "English-speaking peoples" (those societies based on English colonialism) or risk allowing the perfidious French and Germans to lead Britain astray; not to "appease" the bad guys.
This is interesting because here the historian offers, appealing to the authority of his profession, a quite conscious and deliberate set of contemporary political myths. Roberts is presumably aware that in the last quarter of the 19th Century, British colonialism killed on average at least one million people in India each year. He is presumably also aware that the reason for the communal violence that killed one million people was not a hasty timetable, as per Winston Churchill's claim at the time: it was that the British had decided upon the partition of the country, a policy which Bush will impose either de jure or de facto. He will be perfectly well aware that internment during the war in the north of Ireland did not 'work' even on its own brutal assumptions, with most of those interned never convicted of anything; while the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent in World War II was promulgated by politicians who were perfectly aware at the time, because their reports from the FBI and the State Department told them as much, that the people they were locking up were utterly innocent of espionage of any character. And Roberts will know of important legal cases resulting from those episodes, and of the reparations that have had to be made. And the thought that Rome declined because of an absence of 'will' would make Gibbon blush, even if Roberts is clearly drawing on the tradition of 'tragic' Roman decline initiated by Gibbon. (If anyone is interested, Michael Mann has an interesting account in Volume I of The Sources of Social Power, which is only slightly better than Perry Anderson's account in Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism). Roberts is a competent, that is to say trained, historian. He knows all this.
Of course, he was talking to the President, so perhaps you would assume he condescended a little bit. I think it's more likely, however, that he was selling his wares to fellow reactionaries whom he knew would get to hear of his 'provocative' stylings through such outlets as the Weekly Standard. He has tapped into something, a product, a set of convenient solutions whose claim to veracity is neither historical nor empirical: it is simply, tautologically the case that, no matter how bad conditions are, one can always win by killing more people, imprisoning more people, ignoring dissent, sustaining one's 'will' at all costs. With a sort of Bernaysian mastery, he has tapped into the growing unreason, the despair, the search for Godlike assurance among the Brahminical 'intellectuals' of the American right. Each component of the product is carefully hardwired to reactionary desire - selling barbarism as necessary tough-mindedness, alleviating guilt; providing a narrative of civilisational combat ranging from the Hellenocentric to the Anglocentric, thereby sustaining the 'nobility' of the purpose; providing an easy solution while flattering traditional neocon nostrums such as the necessity of 'resolve' and the demand that one make necessary moral distinctions (even though he unmistakeably draws a moral equivalence between empires based on slavery and genocide and the current American empire). Bush himself may even believe some of this shit, it's very hard to tell, but his policymaking team certainly doesn't.
No, this was a hard sell for the punters, probably co-drafted by his wife, a flak at the Brunswick PR group alongside former Sun editor, David Yelland. It doesn't do to reduce this to the confounded hubris of a few liver-spotted warmongers. We shouldn't forget Marx's insight that the root of modern irrationalism doesn't reside in some strange atavism, but in commodity fetishism, in which social relations between people acquire the character of objective relations between things. The products of social labour appear as the real causal agents. Had he survived until the age of propaganda, Marx would have witnessed another kind of fetishism, in which the pioneers of 'public relations' sought to embed the products of their clients in the unconscious desires of the public, so that cars and soap and toothpaste were saturated with contrived connotations in ways that were demystified by Barthes - for the purpose of the fullest realisation of surplus value possible. It did not, clearly, stop with 'planned obsolescence'. Products, institutions, policies and ideas have all entered the orbit of the flak, and there is not a single outlandish, cultic notion that has not been provided with a mass audience in this fashion. Irrationalism is a necessary condition for the accumulation of capital and for the acceptance of policies designed to enhance that procedure, and that is why there are huge multinational industries devoted to the cause of making human beings unreasonable.