No elixirs to hand

Paul Hirst
10 September 2002

The day of 11 September 2001 was the start of a new and prolonged war on terrorism. The attacks changed the scale and significance of the threat. Anthony Barnett is right that the response of the US has been directed to the self-serving agenda of the Bush administration. The American response may be stupid, ham-fisted and ultimately self-defeating, but this war is not optional. We may not like the way our allies in Washington are behaving, but like it or not, we share a common enemy. Our opponents will not allow us to opt out; we cannot appease them even if we wanted to. In the end the whole developed world is a target for al-Qaida, not just the US. Al-Qaida is a nihilist conspiracy, international in scope, which expresses its rage against the West through a brutal and barren form of Islam.

It is possible to limit the appeal of organisations such as al-Qaida. Bush is doing almost the opposite of what is needed to achieve this. Firstly, the US and its allies should act as cautiously and consensually as possible. They should not be weak, but they should be seen to be fair and rational. This involves avoiding very unpopular actions with potentially disastrous consequences, such as invading Iraq. At worst, this could damage pro-Western regimes and lead to recession in the West if oil prices are driven up. And it could leave the Iraqi people with a rotten successor regime to Saddam Hussein.

Secondly, we should strive to remove the greatest legitimation for anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East by distancing ourselves from the current brutal regime in Israel. We have pushed the Palestinians to make a bad peace. It is time to pressure all Israelis of goodwill, of whom there are many, to work towards a real peace settlement. For that to happen, Israelis must be willing to accept a Palestinian state that is more than a patchwork of isolated and impoverished ghettos.

What we cannot do is to eliminate the sources of terrorism. We face a long struggle of containment, with no end state of victory. Organisations such as al-Qaida are likely to recur. This will not be the last group committed to destruction at any price. Bin Laden and his followers are the product of a failed process of modernisation. From Mehmet Ali to Nasser the forces that looked to the future in the Arab world were nationalist, secular and socialist. Political Islam was both a response to the failure of such projects and a way of containing the left. One should not assume that most terrorist groups in the future will be Islamist. We should expect ultra-green and ultra-left terrorism too. The reason is because the failure of modernising and radical projects, such as those in the Middle East, have been and will be repeated across the globe.

Facing the facts

Failure of practical action in the face of real problems leads to displaced and symbolic action, which attacks but cannot displace the perceived exploiters, oppressors and enemies. Across the world, there are now and will be massive problems of economic inequality, environmental degradation and human suffering.

The problem is that, for all the crocodile tears of Western spokespersons, for all the well-meaning rhetoric of radical non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and for all the appeals of the leaders of poor countries, the populations of the rich world intend to do little and the poor do not have viable strategies to overcome their problems. Genuine alternatives for poor countries ended with the demise of Third World socialism and import-substituting industrialisation. For the foreseeable future, this side of economic and environmental disaster, Western publics will want business as usual, and will not elect parties that aim to rock the boat.

Democracy has its price. Western voters are currently wholly unprepared to make the major sacrifices necessary to arrest climate change and to ameliorate mass poverty in the developing world.

The problem is that there are no easy solutions to the problem of climate change and global poverty. On the one hand, alternatives to CO2 emissions will only work in the context of deep cuts in energy consumption in the developed world. On the other hand, we have no elixir to make the world, if not rich, then not poor.

The idea of a corporate capitalist miracle based on free markets and foreign investment is moonshine. Equally, most of the ideas of the global alternatives movement are either impractical or actually stop well short of promoting the kind of development that would eliminate the current gross inequalities.

Socialism of a kind may come back of necessity in the future, not as a recipe for growth, but in a world of crises and shortages, where people accept rationing of scarce resources and economic stagnation because there is no other option. That is some way off. However, genuine radicals now have no real option but piecemeal change. This will not change the big picture.

In a context of grave problems, minorities will rebel against this depressing state of affairs and against the affluent. They will generally be young and radicalised members of elites in both the developed and poor worlds, such as Bin Laden. They will adopt symbolic and expressive violent struggle. They will claim to stand for the poor. Their actions will be destructive and politically useless. Their terror will be random and will be counter-productive. It will feed the political power of the Right. We shall have no option but to resist the armed prophets of bogus revolution, whether Islamic or secular. Our problem is that we cannot pretend that reform is enough any more.

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