I have often referred in these Chronicles to Francis Fukuyama’s idea, first articulated in 1989, that the fall of communism represents the “end of history,” having always found that strong, Hegelian models of this kind help us to understand historical turning points better than more prudently qualified ones. But whatever interest this thesis may have had before September 11, its very complacency, which now seems of another era, tells us much about historical reality in our post-millennial world. As I noted in Chronicle 244, these events make the Cold War look like a family quarrel. The historical dialectic within the Western tradition may now be concluded, but that still leaves the rest of the world unaccounted for.
I share Dr. Fukuyama’s admiration for liberal democracy, the social form that he considers definitive, whose inherent dynamic obliges it to generate ever more degrees of freedom in order to recycle the resentments of an ever-more-demanding population. Liberal democracy has been by far the most successful and productive mode of social organization in history. Yet its seemingly unchallengeable ability to co-opt its opposition through what Herbert Marcuse called in Orwellian language “repressive tolerance”–selling gangsta records to would-be gangsters–has been shown to have a huge window of vulnerability.
Despite my admiration for Fukuyama’s daring thesis, it contains a central contradiction that the present events only make more apparent. To declare the historical dialectic at an end, one must make a decision as to the insignificance of the ongoing conversation. This is the equivalent, let us say, of distinguishing between the discussion in a legislature while a bill is being debated and the chatter that takes place after the vote; or, to choose an example more suited to Fukuyama’s Hegelian objectivity, between the dialogue among scientists before a problem is solved, and the continuing bavardage of pseudo-science (e.g., Thomas Hobbes’ persistent attempts to square the circle). But in the matter of history, how is this decision to be arrived at?
The final stage of the historical dialectic may be said to have been achieved by liberal democracy because in this system, the decision-making process in both economic and political exchange is minimally constrained by power-relations. The result in each given case is, in principle, unpredictable by any individual, the product of a generalized form of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that integrates the wisdom of all. Which is to say that the ultimate superiority of liberal democracy does not lie simply in its empirically-found capacity to produce more wealth and to give its citizens more options, but derives from the minimality of the constraint the system places on its decision-making process. Another way to put this is that the historical macrodialectic may be declared at an end only insofar as it is transformed into a microdialectic within the global market-system dominated by, and ultimately to be made up entirely of, liberal-democratic states.
But in such a system, the decision whether to characterize the dialectic as historical or post-historical can be made only by a consensus of the participants. If one party or another refuses to participate in the global exchange-system, then it is contrary to the very rules of this system to declare that party’s dialectical position nugatory. After all, critics of Soviet communism such as Frederick Hayek denounced socialism as a sham in 1944, following a more technical argument articulated by Ludwig von Mises as early as 1922. What would then have prevented these writers from declaring the “end of history” after WWII, claiming that the apparent challenge presented by communism to the market-system was in principle nonviable?
But the definitive proof of my point is supplied by Dr. Fukuyama himself. His article in the October 5 Wall Street Journal defending his position is entitled History Is Still Going Our Way. Is that an affirmation one can legitimately make after the end of history?
Far more radically than the communist-capitalist competition, focused on the creation of material prosperity–the point of Khrushchev’s near-friendly “we will bury you”–the current conflict opposes two irreconcilable conceptions of social order. And if, geopolitical questions aside, there was really no way that Soviet-style economies could have out-produced the market, the situation is much less clear in a confrontation where opposition has no such common ground. The victory of market democracy, which would consist in the demonstration of its invulnerability to terrorism, leading to the marginalization if not the complete elimination of the latter, is by no means assured.
Clear thinking at such a moment walks a fine line. One can hardly disagree with those who use terms like “evil” to describe terrorist attacks. Those others–and they are not so few–who climb on their high horses to tell us that these actions, however horrible, are expressions of legitimate grievances and/or punishment for “our” arrogance only display their own moral obtuseness. The idea that we should pull out of the Middle East and stop supporting Israel so as to bring acts of terrorism against us to an end is not only morally bankrupt but terminally naïve. It is not some rival fanaticism of our own, but the social dynamic at work in this conflict that makes any kind of quid pro quo, let alone any negotiation–with whom?–unthinkable. We can, and should, act to mitigate the resentment that found expression in these attacks. But we must do this by positive gestures, such as those we are currently making to the people of Afghanistan, not by shaping our foreign policy to the will of the resenters.
Yet it would be foolish to deny that, far more than the tragic utopianisms of the past century, to say nothing of the ideology of our farcical protest movement that has now turned its sights from the WTO to our anticipated “racist war,” these attacks express a coherent world-view. Moral considerations aside, neither Nazism nor communism had any real possibility of creating a viable society by eliminating “bourgeois parliamentarianism” or the bourgeois economy. In contrast, Islamicism–the term both distinguishes the terrorist ideology from Islam and recalls their intimate relationship–is the most coherent opposition to market society conceived in recent times. It has spread over the “third world” as the apocalyptic hope of the resentful masses, and even as we do our best to change the object of this hope, we must understand its logic.
Let us compare the ideology behind September 11 with that of the terrorist attack whose body-count record it shattered. Although both radical enemies of the market system (and of the Jews who are held to embody it), Tim McVeigh and Osama bin Laden have very different visions of the good society. McVeigh’s white-supremacist dream finds its most vigorous expression in The Turner Diaries, a novel published in 1978 under a pseudonym by William Pierce, the leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance. (I hesitate to recommend this book to my readers, but it is available on line at http://www.angelfire.com/hi/themadmoose/tdforwar.html; Francophones may prefer the French translation at http://www.natall.com/french-turner/ .) I don’t know what al-Qaeda leaders read in their spare time, but, at the novel’s climactic moment, the eponymous protagonist achieves immortal glory by deliberately crashing his airplane, armed with a nuclear bomb, into the Pentagon. After thus defeating the Jews and their henchmen in the United States, the “Organization” proceeds to realize its dream of an all-white world by wiping out the entire population of Asia. Aside from the vileness and absurdity of this dream, its substance is naively utopian; once all the “non-whites” have been eliminated, those who are left will inevitably find new ways of differing, and fighting, among themselves. The Nazi dream of Aryan community is not only repulsive but incompatible with reality.
These same flaws cannot be found in the ideology of those who actually hit the Pentagon. No doubt their motivation was rather to strike at American power and cause us suffering than to impose their ideals on us, but the two aims are quite compatible. The destruction of the world market system that the twin towers symbolized would return us to a pre-industrial world that the Islamicists would find far less threatening than ours and where they would stand a good chance of imposing their religious views. Provided we convert to Islam, we would all have a place in this world; unlike the Nazis, Islamicists are not racially exclusionary. Nor is their social ideal unrealizable: something like it exists in many places and it has many adherents around the world. For example, the Taliban-ruled poverty of Afghanistan. No doubt, in the world of today, such a society is not really self-sustaining: the rulers cynically extort food and other supplies from efficient producers to make up for their inability to foster a viable economy. If the whole world were reduced to their level and no such supplies were available, most would die, but those remaining might well find stability in something like a Taliban-ruled existence.
When elaborate social orders fall apart, they do not simply disintegrate. Those who call themselves “anarchists” should reflect (assuming for the sake of argument that anarchism and reflection are not incompatible) that what results from the breakdown of order is not a blissful lack of constraint but the domination of those most able to take advantage of such conditions, that is, groups of young men with guns, optionally under the direction of older leaders. In the worst cases, such as recently in Sierra Leone, these gangs of young men are driven by nothing but greed and lust. But such groups are highly unstable; they lack a principle of cohesion by which to defer the internal resentments they generate. One such principle is a caricature of Marxist ideology, such as that which binds together “leftist” guerillas in places like Colombia and (formerly) Peru, not to speak of the Khmer Rouge. But the most fundamental and powerful principle of cohesion has always been the sacred. The Taliban may be a gang of thugs, but their thuggery is in the service of Islam as they conceive it.
Let us consider a worst-case scenario. Suppose our society were continually disrupted by terrorist attacks on power-stations, transportation systems, dams, workplaces, leisure attractions, and computer networks, perhaps even struck by “weapons of mass destruction” wielded by rogue states in league with the terrorists. At some point, arguably, our economic system would give way under the strain, our political order would break down, and warlords and gangsters would take over. A society in such a state of decomposition could no longer make use of sophisticated production techniques, let alone provide services like road maintenance or health care. We would return to something like Hobbes’ state of nature where our lives would become, if not solitary, then certainly “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” just as are today those of a good part of the Afghan population–and of many other populations–even with foreign aid. Whether or not we all converted to Islam–homegrown fanaticisms would be more likely–the apocalyptic goal symbolized with diabolical brilliance by the destruction of the World Trade Center would be accomplished. The modern configuration of liberal democracy, consumer society, individual choice, and global exchange will have been supplanted by an impoverished pre-modern world where the only alternative to lawless violence is inflexible tyranny.
The establishment throughout the globe of Taliban-style social order, I should make clear, would by no means signify another kind of “end of history”: conflicts would arise, even between Islamic regimes, with who knows what long-term outcome. But the destruction of the global market system would set the world back a good few hundred years, and that, in historical terms, is about as much as anyone can hope for.
The purpose of these remarks is not to make us more fearful, but more resolute. We cannot afford either complacency or fatalism; we must realize that we may be called upon to exert ourselves in altogether new ways both to defend democratic market society and to promote it in those parts of the world that now foster, or at least cheer on, those who abominate it. We may have to endure sacrifices less punctual than the loss of even a few thousand people and far more disruptive than waiting an extra hour at an airport. As we do so, I think we can best maintain our courage by keeping our eyes fixed on the alternative.