Saturday, 14 November 2015

Some thoughts about Paris, the history of Western-Middle Eastern relations and the role of nation states

Two things to share, first of all; one long and one short.

The age of despair: reaping the whirlwind of western support for extremist violence (Counterpunch)

Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis' dramatic feature-length analysis of the west's intervention in Afghanistan and what this tells us about imperialism and social narratives) - iPlayer link

I have sympathy with the Counterpunch article; it is certainly the case that Western powers have done much to manipulate, control and overthrow governments in the Middle East if they were not favourable to our interests (and of course not just in the Middle East). It is worth noting however, these nations were not pre-existing stable entities; at the end of the first world war, Sykes-Picot carved up the region which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries; there is little reason to think that stable nations would have emerged from there (the western construct of nation states is predicated on individualist universalism which developed in our culture over centuries, and isn't so far native to this region with strong traditions of tribalism), or that, left to their own devices, the evolution into stability would have been free of bloodshed (the creation of social order never is). However, in this region the West has found itself increasingly on the wrong side and apparently making choices which guaranteed its people the beneficial use of resources from those lands without having the foresight to grasp what the social effect of their lack of concern for human life in those countries would be: a similar lack of concern for western life by the people whose lives and environments have become hellish. When America and the UK overthrew the democratic revolution in Iran, installing instead the very power we now find so reprehensible, the governments and agencies seemingly thought only of immediate fiscal benefits to our nations and populations; but as the human tragedy has spread across and  out of the Middle East during the 20th century we increasingly see Western civilians - who benefited from material gains mostly without knowing the cost at which they came - bearing the effects of our governments' choices.

There is something to say here about the nature of nation states. Some commentators have remarked that this underscores the need for more powerful state forces, to monitor and protect civilians (omniscience is a requirement of omnipotence, after all; I find it interesting that in a West largely irreligious now we find still the comfort/despair of absent freedom under the watchful eye of Government, where freedom is still only the freedom to be what you are allowed - and is certainly more a freedom-to than a freedom-from); I get this. Authority is an important part of human nature, and having authority to respect and to exert discipline is important for the stability of social order. Anarchy as a system is practicable only on the (very) small scale. It is the duty of nation states to protect their people, and sometimes the people have to feel the pressure of that happening. But we also need to problematise the nation state. It is this very function which has allowed governments to manipulate other societies in order to get the best deal for the people of their own; in the competition which seems necessary between these meta-individuals, there will always be the more- and the less-powerful; and the former will take advantage of the latter in order to maintain their privilege. Does it have to be this way? If we international politics takes its lead from the same source which conditions human group-action, then probably yes. So we should always be willing to challenge the increasing power of a state, because the executive control and decision-making apparatus of (national/individual) consciousness has to be 99% organically determined by the needs of the constituents lest it forget what connects it to the body it controls. But, what happens when states themselves are internally disintegrating due to conflicting identities and narratives within the population? Then we find the kind of brutal repression of non-conforming groups which we ourselves criticise those less-than-democracies for.

And still, the refugees of collapsing countries, destroyed by internal tensions developed as brutal dictators are supported by America and Europe and then removed under the smokescreen of "human rights" without consideration of human nature, flood into Europe - a place which attempts to offer universal rights and freedom to all, as long as you are inside the borders or hold one of our passports. The children of these refugees, realising that the prejudice they face in free Europe is another side of the knife which cut their parents from their homeland, are likely also to consider how they will deal with their place in society - by exacting violent revenge on the citizens who pretend not to know the cost of their freedoms and lifestyles?

And what now will the West do? If it is Daesh, the Islamic State, behind it (as we must suspect), a larger offensive will soon be underway. And what then of the civilians of this region, who welcomed the simple certainty which IS brought to a region collapsing into chaos, the law and stability necessary to human social life even if they are sometimes too harsh for comfort? Will they welcome this stable if oppressive government being removed? Or will they also fight to protect themselves against those who first protected Hussein then killed him and handed Iraq to the lions? If IS is destroyed, what worse force will take its place?

I still do not think this is anything to do with religion, or with Islam. It's to do with the simple mechanical effects of coming from or witnessing regions which have been socially devastated; of bearing scars which can no longer heal; of having witnessed the black void which stands on the brink of society, always threatening to engulf it and make us animals again. The biggest individual killer of the 20th century wasn't Islam, it was Soviet Communism (clocking up some 65 million deaths, most from within the Soviet Union's own population - an attempt to instill the national-intellectual homogeny required for a united state, a means of cleansing the narrative), although communism didn't match fascism for its sheer disgust with human life. Now, I wonder, if we seek explanations for what happens in terrorist attacks such as those in Paris, why do we not for Nazi Germany, for example? The nationalist fervour, the xenophobia and the rise of Nazism are something of a direct result of the crippling of German economy after the first world war - hatred never comes from a vacuum, it must serve a purpose in alleviating a greater suffering.