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Civilisation and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History

Date: 2004
Harris’ line of argument is simple in its core. It is a bad and evil world out there, at the borders of our civilisation, and full of enemies. We forget it at our peril. It is an illusion to pretend that the ‘enemy’ is simply misguided, or misunderstood, or politically immature – ‘a friend we haven’t done enough for yet’. For Harris an ‘enemy is someone who is willing to die in order to kill you. And while it is true that the enemy always hates us for a reason, it is his reason and not ours. He does not hate us for our faults any more than for our virtues. He sees a different world from ours, and in the world he sees, we are his enemy.’ They hate us – because we are their enemy. A society is thus confronted with two antithetic tasks: ‘The first duty of all civilisation is to create pockets of peacebleness in which violence is not used as a means of obtaining one’s objective; the second duty is to defend these pockets against those who try to disrupt their peace, from within or from without. (…) Only those that have mastered ruthlessness can defend their society from the ruthlessness of others.’ The term ‘master’ had a double meaning. Achievement – to stay atop the ruthless league of has to be the most ruthless. Conquest – to protect civilisation one must be able to forego ruthlessness within. Absolute power corrupts absolutely – laments Lord Acton. Incorruptible power can both preserve and destroy – asserts Lee Harris – and incorruptible power is doable. There have been three distinct ‘theories of the enemy’, claims Harris: (a) the enemy as the Greedy (the Marxist view) – (hopefully) to be dissuaded from war by commerce and arbitration as capitalism provided the material basis for abundance; (b) the enemy as the Oppressed (Fukuyama) – (hopefully) to be dissuaded from upheaval by liberal democracy that recognises one another’s legitimacy; (c) the enemy as the Overbearing (Huntington) – the battle of civilisations for recognition by the rest of the world as ‘universally valid’ – for which we don’t know the political answer to it yet. But is this list of ‘enemies’ exhaustive? Harris extends the concept of ‘enemy’ – he defines him as someone who is acting out an evil ‘fantasy ideology’. Mussolini’s Fascism acted out such a fantasy at the expense of the Ethiopians; Hitler’s Nazism at the expense of the Jews and the Slavs. Nothing these people could have done would have saved them from their enemy. He then proceeds to identify 9/11 as the product of ‘fantasy ideology’ – i.e. as ‘symbolic drama, a great ritual demonstrating the power of Allah, a pageant designed to convey a message not to the American people but to the Arab world.’ Such ‘fantasy ideologies’ belong to the class of ‘transformative beliefs’; they are not grounded in fact, but aspire to shape and change the reality in accordance to the will. ‘fantasy ideologies’ – so Harris – differ fundamentally from other ideologies in that they are the product of abstractions, and have not grown organically from experience, and toil – from the confrontation ‘with the immovable object called the real world’. Harris argues that the principle of self-determination [1] has failed us badly, for it has facilitated the emergence of ‘fantasy ideologies’. By disallowing intervention in the internal affairs of a country it sanctions the status quo of despotism and tyranny – the most common and base form of ‘fantasy ideology’. By awarding statehood not on merits, but on the basis of ‘historical precedent’ or other ‘wishful’ criteria, the principle of self-determination channels power into the hands of those who have not had to cope with reality in order to acquire power. In other words, the principle creates ‘moral hazard’. Accidental ‘transformative events’ [2] now act as fuses to the keg, or yield unsuspected historical possibilities: (a) enormous rents (e.g. oil revenues) yield economic power to undeserving individuals; and (b) WMD are available for the buying. ‘Fantasy ideologies’ of ruthless people today have the power to destroy the world, or at least to plunge it into chaos. Old-established concepts, or true and proven ethical and political categories, so Harris, are powerless in dealing with this evolution; and we don’t know what alternative political rules may yield a politically stable system. Ruthlessness, i.e. the readiness to break all the rules (especially the one against self-preservation) plunges us into the ‘civility trap’ – the refusal to acknowledge the incivility of others. Yet without rules ‘cognitive anarchy’ ensues – no one can any longer predict with confidence what the other will do, and it becomes impossible to calibrate in advance the magnitude of any threat or any risk. By implication: ‘in those situations where it is irrational to voluntarily take a risk that involves life and death, those who are willing to act irrationally and to take this risk will be able to force any rational player in acceding to his will.’ I pause in the exposition to muse over this part of the analysis. ‘Breaking rules’ of war is nothing new. The strong have always sought to establish ‘rules’ of war, claiming the need to avoid ‘cognitive anarchy’, in practice to secure their supremacy. The weak always sought to ‘break the rules’ in order to overcome unfavourable odds [3]. We have this situation every time a technological or institutional breakthrough breaks the attack/defence deadlock. Eventually countermeasures emerge, and ‘calibration’ becomes possible anew. War is always about getting killed. Each of us fights because he expects (against all reason) that the odds will be in his favour and he’ll survive. The ‘irrationality’ Harris alludes to emerges when the personal odds of survival are known beforehand tangentially to approach zero. Yet each country has a folk hero that sacrificed himself for the ‘fatherland’. The personal sacrifice yielded a great result: winning a battle, saving the city from invasion etc., reflecting the high value we place of life. What is disconcerting for our mind is the current banalisation of ‘heroism’ – suicide-attack as a humdrum affair, as a daily tactic, rather than as out- of-the-ordinary means for exceptional outcomes. Success does not automatically follow ruthlessness – only if the other side blinks. As the bluff is called, success comes from the barrel of the gun. Hitler’s strength was not that he was ruthless enough to bluff his way to success, but that he had the military power to back up his bluff, and did so when challenged. In the end Germany proved indeed to be more than a match for all but one power – the US with its infinite resources. To conclude: ruthlessness is nothing new. What is new is Al-Qaeda use of ruthlessness to create theatre – illusion – as Harris himself admits (p. 5) rather than achieve a concrete goal. Al-Qaeda’s only hopes of success are either to leverage its theatre into an organised Islamic mass movement that can project force worldwide, or to bring democracies to self-destruct by exhausting their assets in a wild goose chase, resp. destroying the values on which their legitimacy rests. So far Al-Quaeda has signally failed with its first alternative, but succeeded beyond its dreams in morally, institionally and economically destabilising the U.S. In what to me looks like a puzzling afterthought, Harris revisits the concept of ‘enemy’ later in the book (Chapter 10). Here the enemy is not a misguided follower of a ‘fantasy ideology’, but the result of an attempt to establish a civilisation. Building on Hegel’s master/slave dialectic he explains that ‘ruthlessness founds the state, for only those who have mastered ruthlessness can defend themselves against it.’ (p. 173). Well, if ‘violence or force is both legitimate and justifiable but if and only if it is used to establish a civilised order” why should today’s attempt to create such a state – in Palestine or anywhere else – be dismissed as ‘fantasy ideology’? All civilisations have foundations myths. Tradition-oriented societies (including our own Greek and Roman forbearers) tend to view the past as golden and the future as dark or leaden. Western civilisation might be the only one that views the past as barbaric, and has Whiggish view of the future. Where the likes of Thomas Hobbe, Guizot or de Gobineau got their facts about the ‘brutish past’ is anyone’s guess, for they built their theories on sailors’ tales and rank speculation. As we slowly recover the memory of past civilisations when they encountered the West, one is forced to admit that – whatever the ‘other’ – we were at least as brutish as the ‘brutes’. Harris spends some time defining ‘civilisation’. I’d make it simpler. ‘Civilisation’ is the set of ‘insider’ rules that yield longer-term trust among the members of a ‘group’ and thus allow co-operation (and division of labour). The rules defining membership in the group are crucial. At first they may have been based on ‘accidental’ criteria – kinship, race, birth, or tribe – hence membership was essentially ‘closed’. Outsiders were not subject to the ‘insider’ rules, and could be treated at will – killed, enslaved, raped. Within the group government was hierarchical (the chief, the elder), inheritable, and oppressive for the individual. Also it was inefficient, for it failed to ensure continuity of competence. The Greeks innovated in social organisation. Competitive struggle between males (agonostics) being the core of their culture, they moved the ‘team’ rather than the family upfront. Membership in the team became open to all those who (a) were willing to abide by the team’s rules, and were not (b) rejected by the current team members or (c) expelled from it. Once inside the team, all had equal rights – egalitarian self-government had been born. The concept of the ‘common good’ emerged – which was determined by consensus and might imply individual sacrifices. Fairness – the capacity to resolve differences without resorting to a judging third party – prevailed. Rules were made ‘by ourselves for ourselves’, and were no longer ‘customary’. Leadership within the group became elective, rather than inherited. Transfer of power within the group remained difficult; the most common way of removing a delegitimised leader was ostracism – a divisive ‘nuclear option’. Finally, the team stayed small, and with a strong oligarchic flavour, for individuals from outside the community could ‘join’ only on an individual basis. The budding Roman Republic needed to sustain ‘critical military mass’ as it expanded quickly from city-state to world power. It invented the ‘merger’ of whole allied cities and states into Roman citizenship – political ‘symbiosis’. It also transformed political leadership in an open-ended elective career that did away with ostracism. Justice replaced fairness – a specialised body of judges administered written rules established by the body politic. Social organisation as a ‘team’ proved to be a major institutional innovation, and a winning one. The West moved ahead of other political systems based on kinship. The nation-state was the final product, together with its capacity to wage total war. This capacity revealed the fatal weakness of the system. The collapse of the ‘legitimate’ powers after WWI gave ruthless groups the chance to appropriate the nation for their evil purposes. Three elements were essential: (a) perceived legitimacy; (b) psychological motivation (the ‘fantasy ideology’); and (c) a totalitarian organisation (the party). Such ruthlessness had to be fought ruthlessly. It befell the US to develop the way to do so. Nuclear terror concentrated absolute destructive power into the hands of the U.S. President. Harris concludes: ‘Civilised life begins only to exist when men have learned how to fight ruthlessness without succumbing to it themselves, and it only exists for as long as they remember the trick of how this is done. The trick has been mastered by the USA.’ (p. 167). This occurred during the Cold War, when the US President was given advance authority to retaliate to a Soviet attack. And in a sweeping corollary he argues: ‘America must use its power, unilaterally if need be, to destroy or remove any group of people who are deliberately and consciously following a policy of ruthlessness, whether this group is a state against another state, a state against its own people, or an al-Qaeda-like organisation.’ At the end of his book Harris gives a further justification for the US position: ‘The US is uniquely equipped to act as the new sovereign not simply because of its power, but because of its tolerance. (…) Its diversity reflects that of the world, and this means that for the first time in world history a great power is genuinely capable of transcending the limitations to human cooperation imposed by the divisions along the lines of race, sect, and ethnicity.’ (p. 203). For a country whose origins are grounded in slavery and religious intolerance and zealotry, this is indeed a reasonable basis for its claim to being the ‘new sovereign’. After this sweeping tour of history it is time to catch one’s breath: Ruthlessness comes in different flavours. There is ‘worldly ruthlessness’. We have met many ruthless men in the past: Xerxes, Alexander, Genghis Khan, or Napoleon. Communism belongs here, for it wanted to create Paradise on earth. Nazism has already religious or transcendental streaks – destroying the Jews was more an act of faith than a means to establish Aryan world rule. Then there is ‘transcendental ruthlessness’ of the fundamentalist (of whatever persuasion) for whom life has only instrumental value. Religious wars fall in this category. ‘Worldly ruthlessness’ can be fought through war with hope of success: the Greeks proved it at Salamis and Plataea. Many a great tyrant of the past went down to defeat when his resources were exhausted. Nothing new or special here, I’d say. ‘Transcendental ruthlessness’ is special in that it fights without regard to its own losses [4] – the godly soldiers get their reward in heaven. This has both strengths and weaknesses. The strength is the unquestioning commitment. The weakness is that self-immolation is not quite as popular as the hysterical press might want us to believe. The Assassin movement killed dozens, not thousands. Furthermore, in a ‘high-tech’ world religious fanaticism and technical expertise seldom match – James Bond movies notwithstanding. This has been proven correct once again – militarily Al-Qaeda remains a failure. Even should they manage to use WMD they are more likely to disrupt than destroy our civilisation. In other words, in the end the ‘audit of war’ applies to them as well, and here faith yields little. The U.S. ‘experience with ruthlessness’ during the Cold War may not be as probative as of Harris makes it out to be. There are grounds to believe that the Soviet Union was far less ‘ruthless’ – albeit remaining ruthlessly opportunistic – that we made ourselves believe then (see Cuban missile crisis). Proof might be seen in the fact that the ‘ruthless’ system imploded without firing a shot across its borders as it did so. The U.S. President’s power during the Cold War was explicitly retaliatory: it was based on calculated (and appropriate) response – deterrence and eventual retaliation – not preventive or precautionary aggression. Harris conclusion goes well beyond means to ensure ‘survival or reprisal’ of the U.S. and its friends in the face of ‘imminent ruthlessness’. In a grand intellectual leap of faith it is applied both to potential ‘ruthlessness’ and to any ‘ruthlessness’ between states and within states. The ‘precautionary principle’ is implied, and is the only justification. Said principle is – top say the least – logically controversial. Harris does not explain how the U.S. is to read the minds of peoples and determine potential friend from foe. Even Cain got his mark only after the deed. Whether the U.S. has the means, material as well as institutional, to be the self-appointed ‘defender of the Western values’ is unproven. In practice the U.S. have proven themselves far from fit for their ambition. In both Afghanistan and Iraq their intelligence was wrong, their plans for the reconstruction were wrong and went wrong, and its capacity for self-restraint in exercising ruthless power has shown to be inadequate. They may achieve something – thanks to the sheer means invested – but the outcome will hardly bring the world closer to the ultimate demise of ruthlessness. To conclude this longish section – if the case for ruthlessness is weak, the case for U.S. discretionary ‘right to ruthlessness’ hardly stand up. An apologia contra intellectum follows. Harris lashes out against the ‘fanaticism of abstract thought’. He marshals Hegel to this purpose: ‘Hegel’s point is that violence is inevitable once people have set out to reshape the world according to their own ideals – ideals that turn out to be nothing more that a kind of intellectual make-believe. The resultant complex is a ‘fantasy ideology’…’ and he goes on to point out that for Hegel, ‘the ideal exists primarily in its incarnation, in the flesh and blood of concrete practice between human beings in face-to-face local encounters, in consistent and predictable patterns of behaviour.’ And then: ‘For Hegel it is our abstract ideas that fall short of reality, not reality that falls short of our abstract ideas, and the only way to make the two fit is to force our ideas to be confronted with the reality, instead of trying to force reality to fit our ideas.’ The only way to cure our ideals of this defect, Harris continues, is to have other people challenge them. Something real then may emerge from the compromise among conflicting abstractions. ‘Such compromise creates a new form of reality, one in which what before had been merely ideal and abstract has now gained a foothold in the concrete and practical. This new form of reality not only allows people to work together in terms of the newly created reality, but it also allows them to use this previous compromise as a pattern on which to model other compromises, where what is at stake are ever more serious clashes of our ideals.’ Such compromises end by creating ‘institutions’ and that’s how ‘Reason’ becomes the ‘Real’. I’d be happy to go along with all that Hegel – through Harris – has said, except… we know that ‘truth’ is not the statistical average of contradictory ‘fantasy ideologies’, except in banal situations. The clock turns towards the left not for a reason, but by chance. As we know from evolution, species are never the ‘fittest’ in absolute terms; they are the fittest strictly in those particular circumstances that made their emergence possible. In nature one observes loads of ‘half-baked’ species, whose sole merit is that they made it somehow past the pole of reality. If a political reality, once established by chance on the ground, is unassailable, then we privilege the status quo unduly. Counterfactuals don’t count in any case. The only way to ‘improve’ any situation is to start from abstract reasoning, as poor as a guide it is. Ironically for Harris , the best counter-example is the American Revolution. It started out as the most noble of ‘fantasy ideologies’. It got a lease on life due to contingencies – isolation, British incompetence and, critically, French military assistance. More immediately, this section of Harris book tends to invalidate the previous claim to a discretionary US ‘right to ruthlessness’. ‘Fantasy ideologies’ dixit Harris, are not the purview of intellectuals alone; they emerge whenever ideas or perceptions are not forced into a confrontation with reality – when they fail to take the Hegelian ‘road of despair’. Granted. An easy case could be made that in fact ‘fantasy ideology’ underpins current U.S. action in international political affairs. Doesn’t the unwillingness of the U.S. administration to engage with its allies in earnest over the goals and the conduit of the ‘war on terrorism’ points in that direction? Hasn’t reality shown time and again the U.S. administration to have been wrong? Yet this has made no impression on those who prize steadfastness above all else. One might even venture that the current ‘political immunity’ of the Administration from the fiscal and human consequences of its actions is what makes its current indulgence possible – all these points fulfil Harris’ criteria for a ‘fantasy ideology’. Just as the Arabs live off the oil rent, the U.S. is living of the rent of being the sole super-power left in the world – and having WMD. And how is one to square the current ‘idealism’ in the US administration for ‘spreading democracy around the world’ with the Harris scepticism about ideology? Harrrrum… I don’t know what to make of the last two chapters. Harris embarks on the search of the ‘unique’ contribution the West has made to mankind. I’d agree wholeheartedly that ‘shame’ and ‘trust’ based on ‘codes of honour’ are essential for civilisation. In order for rules of cooperation to be effective they have to be internalised and self-policing. Sole reliance on external control and fear of punishment would defeat the purpose, for the costs of enforcement would become prohibitive. The West’s unique contribution to mankind – so Harris – is the secular offshoot of ‘Protestant doctrine that held that every man could know God’s will in every particular case before him. This claim was made all the more extraordinary because it was accompanied by a rejection of the trustworthiness of human reason. Reason for the first Protestants was not merely the slave of passion; it was its whore. (…) The answer was conscience.’ (p. 186). This is achieved by self-mastery, character building and moral education. This is not ‘repressive’ but transformative. Such an ‘ethical community’ yields the highest state of freedom. The ‘incidental’ result of this transformation is capitalism – which has been ‘a progressive force in the world’ and for good measure ‘is the only known preventive for the rule by gangster and warlord’. The assertion that ‘conscience’ is a uniquely Western (or Protestant) contribution to mankind is baseless. Harris conclusion: ‘This is the reason for America’s great power – the legacy of the Protestant conscience that was diffused through the professional attitude of the businessman; the intrinsic capacity to take the wishes and needs of others seriously and to adjust our behaviour accordingly; that instinctive, mechanical, mindless conformity of the American average Joe so derided by the intellectual and sophisticate.’ is downright laughable given the unbroken pattern of predation, spoliation, and corruption that has characterised the American economic system – from slavery in colonial Virginia to Enron and WorldCom today. American capitalism has many virtues, I’ll freely admit, but integrity is not its strong suit. With Harris I’d concede that there are ruthless people out there, and we might be forced to fight them. In talking about ‘the Other’, however, one should be more than aware of how easy it is to project one’s fears and phobias, or how one might indulge himself in ‘fantasy ideology’. To postulate self-righteously that US ‘codes of conduct’ and ‘conscience’ are a sure way through the thicket of our darkest passions is, well – so typically American. The greatest achievement of the U.S. has been its success in transforming a ‘revolutionary vision’ into a workable reality. The political success has spilled over into business and made the country incredibly innovative. America has proved and proves daily that ‘the past has zero value’. Only the future counts. So far they have been alone in this: France, and signally Russia failed, and are now plagued by self-doubt. China might yet succeed, and India might transform its colonial experience into self-reliant strength. But the jury is still out in both cases. Alas, America’s success is also its curse. Having overcome self-doubt, it can no longer contemplate it. The ‘city on the hill’ can do no wrong. For this sin of hubris retributive justice demands that America be forever condemned to try and ‘do the world anew’ in accordance with the latest ‘vision’ – or fear. MCI 20 May 2005 Notes [1] It might be noted in passing that the concept of ‘self-determination’ has been proposed and espoused by the U.S. after both World War I and II against the wishes of the colonial powers (UK and France) or the neo-colonial Soviet Union. [2] Transformative events push the boundary of the conceivable. Before World War I war could not be conceived as the ruthless affair it became. Discovered by chance, ruthlessness became Germany’s deliberate strategy in World War II, followed and egged on by Japan. In other words, they are ‘changes in what is collectively permissible to our imagination. (…) When the unthinkable becomes increasingly thought, it begins to numb those visceral emotions that govern the shame system, and thus the very structure of civilisation that it supports.’ [3] The Swiss peasantry destroyed the Austrian knights by unceremoniously burying them under logs and stones they rolled down a slope on them. At Crecy, the British foot folk unchivalrously cut horses’ heels, and then the throats of the fallen knights. The horse (and black powder) was the basis of Mongolian successful domination of the agrarian and settled societies that defended themselves with human or stone walls. [4] Napoleon is said to have fought ‘without regard to losses’. This is incorrect; he just had bigger reserves of soldiers. By the time he went into Russia his core of French soldiers was much diminished, however. His undoing in Russia in 1812 was in good part due to the fact that he had to rely on his allies, whom he could not trust, as well as unseasoned Frenchmen.
Review by Aldo Matteucci

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