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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  1. islamically, the description of the ‘enemy’ seems accurate, but the end-state described is totally secular with no mention of the ‘life here-after’; therefore, it would not be a goal worth pursuing. these positive attributes of life after the destruction of the evil empire are pleasant side-effects of the victory but no the goal – making Allaah’s word supreme on earth (shari’ah) is the goal for islamists.

  2. Very interesting (utopian) view.
    The result of such a community would be a backtrack to an agricultural society with no or few innovations. Moreover that community would be at the mercy of ALL the existing “evil” forces in this world including and especially the mohamedans.
    Anyway, the first followers would be expunged quite rapidly, as most utopian views.

  3. This is a ridiculous argument — that there exists overlaps between activists groups such as French farmers (who seem right in wanting to protect the homogenization of traditional foods) and pro-Palestinian activists (who are right to denounce, as the international community and international law do, Israel’s occupation of Palestine) is hardly surprising. Nor is it sinister. There may be an anti-neoliberal agenda among some of who espouse these causes, but there’s also plenty who are not. Protecting Roquefort is a business decision as well as a cultural one; seeking an end to Israel’s occupation of Israel is a moral call (made by plenty of American presidents) as well as a political one. Islamism has little to do with Palestinian independence, the struggle for it precedes the creation of Hamas or the use of Palestine in Islamist rhetoric. This idea of a “World Purificationist” agenda seems to try to label people who support perfectly normal, but politically difficult ideas in the current political context (at least in the EU and US), ideas with a totalitarian mindset. It is slander.

    • It sounds to me like you and Sternberg are substantially in violent agreement with the exception of the last two sentences of your comment. As you say, there is an anti-neoliberal agenda among some of these people who espouse these causes. You are quite right to note that among others there is not. Sternberg would agree with you. He also notes that he shares some of the concerns of what he calls the World Purificationists (he specifies gay rights, pollution, and land set-asides for Amazonian tribes).

      The question is, what do the full range of these issues all have to do with each other and what are the implications? I think Sternberg is far better on the first question than the second. That said, I think he is right to be alarmed when the members of this movement that he sees, eschew well-established democratic processes, label their opponents as sinister and evil, and support violence against their opponents albeit only outside the US and Europe (so far).

      On Islamism, you raise a good point. Sternberg’s article seems to say–and in this I would definitely agree with him–that the rest of the World Purificationist movement sees radical Islamists as being with them, but that radical Islamists would not necessarily reciprocate that view. That said, of course, the most extreme radical Islamists, e.g. Al Qaida and their ilk, are very concerned about globalization, the spread of western values, the ubiquitous use of democracy, as well as the existence of Israel.

  4. […] choice.”  White presumably knows more about the environmentalist world than I, and certainly politics is seeing some very strange bedfellows these days.  That said, I’m not aware that other radical environmentalists have actually found […]

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