A New Totalitarianism

I strongly recommend Ernest Sternberg’s article in the latest Orbis.  Entitled “Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For,” it discusses a new totalitarianism that the author sees challenging the present world order.  No, this is not “Islamo-Fascism.” If that were the subject of this article, I wouldn’t blog about it, because I am tired of the banal arguments on both sides of that debate.  (But that’s a different story.)  No, though radical Islamism plays a role here, this article is about something much broader.

Sternberg notes the existence of some seemingly very odd ideological bedfellows.  He notes the long-known fact that the traditional left-right spectrum actually wraps around itself.  He reviews the literature about the so-called Red-Brown and Red-Brown-Green alliances.  (In this context, “green,” he observes, sometimes means environmentalist and sometimes means Islamist.)  To me all of these apparent contradictions and non sequiters can be nicely summarized in one incident that shows up in the article: why should it be that a protest in France to show support for the maintenance of the Roquefort cheese appellation should attract demonstrators carrying anti-Zionist placards?  What could possibly be going on here?

Steinberg is not and does not claim to be plowing new ground here.  One interest recent piece which has gone over major aspects of this issue is George Michael’s fascinating article “The Ideological Evolution of Horst Mahler: The Far Left–Extreme Right Synthesis” in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism last year.  (Mahler went from Baader-Meinhof to neo-fascism.)

Where Sternberg shines is in his argument—admittedly more than tinged with polemicism—that there really is a coherent ideology at work, though it has yet to find its Marx, let alone its Lenin.  Nor yet, do all of its adherents understand the ideology with which they have associated themselves.  That said, there is a there there and it’s totalitarian and he calls it “world purificationism.”

This ideology is best known to all of us through its list of enemies.  World Purificationists see a world divided between the toxic and the pure.  The “empowered global system” exudes toxicity while disempowered peoples suffer from that toxicity.  This global system:

exercises domination through corporate tentacles, media manipulation, state power, and military prowess. It is selfish, greedy, ruthless, racist, and exploitative, and heedlessly pollutes the earth. It imposes its media-saturated culture, dehumanizing   technologies, and exploitative production systems on subject peoples.

This empire is maintained by “liberals” and “neoliberals” in the European senses of the words.

Under the thrall of Neoliberal Empire, people live in poverty, food is contaminated, products are artificial, wasteful consumption is compelled, indigenous groups are dispossessed, and nature itself is subverted.  Invasive species run rampant, glaciers melt, and seasons are thrown out of kilter, threatening world catastrophe. 

More specifically, the World Purificationists have identified two “enemies of humanity.”  These are the United States and Israel.  The United States is genocidal in every possible meaning of the word.  Not only does it feel free to kill anyone in the world when it deems it necessary, but it also “is a wasteland of commercial advertisement, corporate homogenized products, franchise restaurants, theme parks, processed chickens, and so forth. Not only does the United States have phony culture, it strangles the real cultures around the world.”

The most interesting part of all this is Sternberg’s explanation of what this movement stands for, his portrayal of the “exhilarating future” that the World Purificationists foresee.

The new order will be sustainable. It will run on alternative energy, organic farming, local food markets, and closed-loop recyclable industry, if any industry is needed. People will travel on public transit, or ride cars that tread lightly on the earth, or even better, ride bicycles. They will occupy green buildings constructed of local materials and inhabit cities growing organically within bioregions. Life will be liberated from carbon emanations. It will be a permanent, placid way of life, in which economies are integrated into the earth’s ecosystem.

The new world will also achieve cultural purity. … [Here] culture is the offspring of folk-spirit: that mysterious life-source from which identity, meaning, and pride emerge. It is found in indigenous life-style, local habitat, feeling of community, and the heady experience of fringe art. Even communities that may have little left by way of traditions can look inward, perhaps just to their shared experience of oppression, for the folk-spirit from which to extract identity and pride.

In this new world, individuals’ beliefs will grow naturally from their cultures. As against rampant Americanization, indigenous ways of life become secure. What is more, communities will be protected from criticism leveled at them by means of abstract, rationalist reasoning.

Victims especially enjoy the status of ethereal purity. They do so by dint of their victimhood, a sign that they are antagonists of Empire.

Multiple cultures will flourish, saved from global homogenization. Persons of diverse ethnic communities, conditions of ability or disability, and gender and transgender statuses will live with each other in harmony and mutual appreciation. Varied views will be expected and welcome, as long as they stand in opposition to Empire. All religions will be welcome as long as they celebrate other religions. A religion that fights Empire is, however, exempt from having to celebrate another culture; instead, it will express understandable anger against its subjugation to Empire.

The new world will have political structures very different from the republican regimes that lead Empire. … In contrast, the new world will be purely democratic. …The democratic process will proceed through meetings freed from the manipulative reins of law, procedure, precedent, and hierarchy. These will be forums in which non-hegemonic discourse will flourish. And the forums will be assuredly democratic because bona fide grass-roots progressives will facilitate them.

Despite their concern with racism, torture, and genocide, the World Purificationists, Sternberg argues, engage in “ideologically-induced corruption of language” to obscure the fact that precisely these actions are committed by entities other than the United States or Israel.  Definitionally, only the United States and Israel (and, one supposes, their close associates, such as Britain) can conduct these acts.  Hence, abuses in places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, and the Congo simply become un-events (my formulation, not Sternberg’s).

Sternberg notes that the proponents in the west of this movement have yet to make any serious resort to violence, though they applaud violence by groups abroad who “resist” the Empire.  He suggests, however, that this violence, when it comes, will be utterly unapologetic even if it happens to be massive and wanton in its application.  In words that remind me of Ward Churchill, Sternberg writes, “It should be clear, though, that when acts of resistance occur against Empire and cause mass civilian casualties, the maimed and the dead are not victims of purity, something that is, by definition, impossible. Rather, such casualties are understandable blowbacks of Empire’s aggression.”

As you can see I think this is a fascinating article.  However, as someone who spends his time thinking about the organized application of violence (that is, war) I was left wondering what the threatened revolution by the World Purificationists would look like were it to come.  Warfare is, after all, a political and a cultural act reflective of the broader values and structures of the combatant groups.  The revolutionaries would clearly be incapable of conducting a war involving a high-degree of centralized control.  In some senses that may be an encouraging idea.  On the other hand, presently popular notions of network analysis and decapitation would be quite unhelpful in holding back such an onslaught.

This calls for more pondering.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 4:50 AM  Comments (5)  
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Books and Articles That Caught My Eye

Just a miscellany today.

First off, the CIA has posted the unclassified items from the latest issue of its Studies in IntelligenceAs usual, it all looks very interesting.  However, three pieces struck as particularly noteworthy:

And yesterday I picked up a copy of Professor Alfred W. McCoy’s 2009 book, Policy America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State.  McCoy seems to have an extensive discussion of American intelligence operations in the context of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine War.  Based purely on a quick read of the introduction, McCoy seems to argue, like Joan Jensen, that what the United States learned in these conflicts about conducting surveillance and intelligence operations it took home and also applied elsewhere.  As I say, I haven’t read the book yet, but the History News Network had a positive review of it last fall.  Mind you, McCoy has done extensive work on the role of the CIA in the international narcotics trade, so I’m going to approach this work with caution.  We shall see.

A Possible New Jihadist Strategist

The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel has just put out a “Periodical Review” of new jihadist literature.  In it, they mentioned having found the following:             

The Jihadi media institute “Mufakkirat al-Faluja: the Department of History and Strategic Recommendations” has published a book titled “In the Shadow of the Swords: From the Battle of Badr… to the Badr Invasion in Riyadh, Military Insight from the Depth of History” (193 pages), by Abdullah al-Hajj.     

Perhaps my wish for a new military thinker in the jihadist world has been answered?    

Has anyone seen this “book”?  Does anybody know anything about it?  I’ve never heard of the author, the work or the organization.  That, of course, doesn’t mean much, but I’d love to find a copy, even if I can’t read it. (ICT’s footnote takes me to a forum where I need a login.)   Better yet, I’d love to have a copy and a translation.  🙂  Hope springs eternal…           

[For those who may not know: Muslims recognize the Battle of Badr as the first battle fought by Muslims.  The “Badr Invasion in Riyadh” is, I believe, a reference to Badr ar-Riyadh, the May 2003 bombing in Riyadh which did more than anything else to set the Saudi Government on Al Qaida’s case.  There was a time when Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was largely in Saudi Arabia.  Badr ar-Riyadh was the beginning of the end of that.]            

















Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 6:52 PM  Comments (2)  
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Will the War on Terrorism Be a Touchstone for Future Military Thinking?


Throughout Western history there have been a series of periods or wars which have set the intellectual tone in military studies, be they works of theory or history.       

Machiavelli's Art of War

Machiavelli's Art of War translated into English (1573)

For many centuries the touchstone was the classical period of ancient Greece and ancient Rome.  For instance, Vegetius’ De Rei Militari, for instance, was in active use all the way into the 17th century.  When Machiavelli wrote his Art of War in the early 16th century, he famously denigrated the utility of artillery so that he could make his recommendations conform more closely to the classical model.           

Eventually, new thinking started to emerge and there was a period during which there was no obvious touchstone and then came Napoleon who dramatically and repeatedly swept across Europe.  Not only did Napoleon write his widely read Maxims, but, far more importantly Jomini and Clausewitz wrote their highly influential works basically to understand what Napoleon had done and this is not to mention the flurry of lesser works devoted to the same topic.  Nor yet does it address all the works that built on Jomini and (to a much lesser degree) Clausewitz. 

Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini

By the time World War I came around, Jomini and Clausewitz were certainly still very important, but other things had happened, notably the Prussian wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, that got people’s brains churning, as well, and arguably there was no single intellectually dominant military event.  World War I, however, became a dominant event and, not surprisingly, a great of the post-war literature focused on how we could avoid doing that again.  This was a period of great intellectual ferment.  Basil H. Liddell Hart’s concept of “indirect strategy” came out of this period, for instance.       

World War II then happened and, not surprisingly, dominated people’s attention for decades.  After the war was over, the U.S. Army enlisted the help of German generals in helping it think about how to defend against the Soviet Army.  Much of the agony of the Vietnam war boiled down to griping (whether well-founded or not is beside the point) that generals whose heads were in World War II were running the war inappropriately.  In the Soviet Union, the history of the “Great Patriotic War,” as they knew World War II was even more dominant.  Because criticizing current doctrine was a dicey proposition, Soviet officers writing in professional journals would often discuss current issues in the guise of debating history.           

Well, now we are in what used to be called the “Global War on Terrorism.”  With the direct intellectual influence of World War II fading, will this current struggle become a well-spring of thinking in the future?  If so, what will that future thinking look like?  Or, alternately, will it sink like a stone, intellectually speaking?  The United States does have a tradition of suppressing the memory of conflicts that fit outside of what it wanted to do.  It did this to the Philippines War (once known as the Philippine Insurrection) and did it again to the Vietnam War.  The Soviets, despite having fought Basmachi rebels during the 1920s and Afghan “dushmen” during the 1980s, kept its attention firmly focused on replaying World War II, except this time with nuclear weapons.  If this global struggle doesn’t stick in the brains of strategists and military historians, what will?

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 12:47 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Spanish American War in Movies (real ones)

The Library of Congress has online a collection of motion pictures documenting the Spanish-American War, a part of its “digital collections” section.  These brief movies are all from the period.  Three or four are re-enactments (and the LOC carefully labels them as such) the rest are the real thing.  That said, cameras were clumsy then and cameramen disinclined to expose themselves to gunfire, so don’t expect combat footage.

Until I stumbled across this, I was not aware that there were any motion pictures of that war.  I think you’ll find them interesting.

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 3:51 AM  Comments (1)  
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