Monday, February 23, 2015

Should We "Do Something" About ISIS?

The political war of words about defining the enemy with regard to ISIS and Islamic extremism is a necessary conflict. We need to understand what ISIS and radical Islam means to us, and what we should do about it, if anything.

The first thing to understand is that President Obama and the West's center-left oligarchy are in a bit of a bind. The reason that Obama (and Bush) wanted to talk about "violent extremism" is that they want to avoid facing the fact that Islam is a pre-modern religion. The notion of "jihad" is an appropriate ideology for the pre-industrial society when land was life and wealth. You need to defend your food-growing territory, and maybe expand it, because the more good land, the more of your people can live.

But the modern industrial world isn't like that. Wealth in the modern world is not in land, but in people and knowledge. The fundamental transformation of the modern world, to coin a phrase, is that you increase wealth through surprise and innovation in the exploitation of the world and its knowledge secrets. The rise of the West coincided with its invention and adoption of a global exchange economy where people do not conquer and plunder but produce and exchange.

On this view, the colonialism of the West was not so much conquest and plunder as producing and trading.

This revolution in what Marx calls "productive forces" demands a revolution in politics and culture. The rich nations of the world are the ones that have submitted most completely to the demands of the new productive forces and adapted their politics and culture to the new reality on the ground.

Right now we are in the climactic phase of this revolution as the two great ancient cultures and population centers, India and China, have recently capitulated to the new reality and are soaring in wealth and prosperity.

Put simply, India and China are submitting to the global exchange economy and the rule of the market. The rule of the market means that everyone, every single human, submits to the invisible hand of the market, and works to provide products and services that other people are willing to pay for. Government, on this view, is there to provide the legal infrastructure and defend honest producers, traders, and consumers from force and fraud.

Submission is not easy; we have seen movements of rejection all the way. The fact is that people doing fine under the old regime don't want to change, and people exploited under the old system find the experience of adapting to the new culture of work and cooperation unbearable.

Under the old regime, ordinary people were serfs and peasants and they needed to live under protection of a great patron, the local lord, the local landowner, the local cacique. When these ordinary people arrive in the city they look for a new patron, and they find it in the proto-states run by city machine politicians and national social-democratic parties where they can relate to political power in the way they were used to back on the farm.

The language that the machine politicians and social democrats use is the language that the president and his officials used at the White House Summit on Violent Extremism held in February 2015. The Obamis talked about marginalized people suffering from deprivation and lack of jobs. What was needed was the usual social democratic recipe of patronage and clientism.

Conservatives say that this misses the point. The problem is that the people of the Middle East have not made the cultural journey to life in the global exchange economy. They are still tribal; they still marry cousins; they lack a thriving exchange economy run on the principle that every stranger can be trusted unless he demonstrates untrustworthiness.

Now the problem with ISIS and the turmoil in the Middle East is basically cultural. The people of the Middle East feel trapped and marginalized by the economic success they see all round them. They need to develop, under wise leadership, a version of the culture of trust and cooperation that the other peoples of the world have painfully learned over the last five centuries of economic and cultural revolution.

Right now we are seeing a panic over ISIS and its remarkable propaganda which represents itself as an unstoppable force that will flow over the Middle East and elsewhere. There is a palpable sense that we should "do something."

But we can also see that Bush's Iraq strategy of going in an taking out Saddam-like thugs is of limited use, because it imposes a political solution from above on societies that are still pre-modern. The people of the Middle East must themselves find a cultural and religious model that gives meaning to their own cultural revolution from tribe and blood to trust and cooperation.

In the prosperous West this cultural revolution involved the growth of an ideology of responsible individualism, typically associated with the Protestant Revolution.  People began to see themselves as responsible for their lives, and stopped relying on powerful patrons to provide for them. Notoriously, people like the Mayflower Pilgrims decided they couldn't take the old ways any more and sailed to America to make a new life in the new way.

Egypt's president Al-Sisi has tried to begin the process for Egypt by issuing a challenge to its cultural leaders.
"We have reached the point that Muslims have antagonized the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] want to kill the rest of the world’s population of 7 billion, so that Muslims prosper? This is not possible.” Sisi continued, to faint applause from the religious dignitaries assembled before him, to call on them to bring about a “religious revolution.” Barring that, the Muslim community “is being torn apart, destroyed, and is going to hell.”
 But of course, it is not the job of a politician to tell imams what to think and do, any more than in the US it is the job of the president to issue marching orders to the nation's churches. Politicians pick up what the cultural world creates and adapt it to the demands of political power. Right now the cultural leaders of the Middle East are caught up in the cultural aftermath of Sayed Qutb, who went to Colorado in the late 1940s and was horrified.

In the West we have the illusion that cultural change can be and ought to be conducted without heartache and without violence. This, of course, is rubbish. There will be turmoil in the Middle East for a century and more, and there will be blood.

The question for the West is whether we should "do something" about the Middle East, and if so, what that "doing something" should be.

Don't expect any brilliant solutions any time soon.

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