Thoughts on economics and liberty

Paul Berman’s thesis regarding human irrationality

I’m using this to understand better and make annotations (in colour, etc.) SOURCE:


I would like to offer ten propositions with which our present crisis could be observed.

1) In the nineteenth century, the belief arose that the secret of human progress had been discovered and had been proved to be correct. This secret was thought to be a belief in the many instead of the one, a belief that each aspect of life should be allowed to remain in its own sphere—the public and the private, the state and society, the religious and the civil. There was a belief that society ought to govern itself through rational analysis.

Many different philosophies and political movements expressed this idea. None of them, none of the large ones, expressed it fully consistently. Marx had some aspects of this idea. The French Revolution stood for some aspects and could not quite get the other aspects right. Thomas Jefferson stood for a very pure version of this idea and yet couldn’t quite straighten out the part regarding human slavery. Each separate movement in the nineteenth century, or in the early eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, had some aspect of it and some contradiction which was yet to be worked out.

And yet, in spite of the contradictions, there was consensus about general principles which were seen to be working in some of the societies that we think of as the West and which were regarded by some people in all regions around the world as the secret of human progress universally, not just in the places where they were seen to be prospering at that moment.

There was among a very large number of people, a general feeling of underlying optimism, which you can see in many of the writers of the nineteenth century, in many of the doctrines that came to dominate political movements.

2) At the same time, there was reason to be suspicious of these doctrines. There was a whole series of criticisms about hypocrisies or inconsistencies or lies that were concealed within it. Marx was the great prophet of this.

But beyond these doctrines of suspicion, there were also some elements that not even Marx discussed, something that went beyond exploitation and hypocrisy. This could be seen by the late-nineteenth century in King Leopold’s war in the Congo or in German Southwest Africa at the turn of the century, where the very countries, Germany and Belgium, who were among the principal exemplars of the doctrine of human progress, were in some other aspect of their national activity somehow engaged in the most grotesque genocide. The combination of the sense of optimism and the genocidal atrocities, seemed to be beyond the capability of the liberal imagination to conceive.

In the First World War, these darkest aspects, which had already been visible in the Congo and in Southwest Africa, finally rolled back across Europe. What had been unimaginable throughout the nineteenth century finally took place in Europe itself, which was mass death on the most colossal scale, nine or ten million people killed for reasons that were ultimately unintelligible. Each country went into the war with a logical set of reasons instead of treaties and alliances. The final outcome was a catastrophe beyond that which anyone would have or did predict.

3) From the nineteenth century and onward, a series of rebellions against this prevailing liberal optimism arose. Some of these rebellions are particularly worth observing.

First, there was a rebellion within the romantic literary tradition, in romantic poetry. An important sign of this was Victor Hugo’s verse play Hernani in 1830, which already broached certain themes. The play ends with the attempted assassination of the King of Spain and a triple suicide. The theme of murder and suicide in the context of rebellion had already been broached.

Baudelaire picks up the same theme. In the second edition of The Flowers of Evil, the inscription mentions enrolling in the rhetorical school of Satan.

And, in fact, there is a religious subtext that underlies this notion of rebellion, which is the romantic cult of Satan, which, within the literary tradition, begins to mean a cult of murder and suicide as literary postures.

Later in the nineteenth century among the poets, the religious aspect of this rebellion, of this notion of transgressive rebellion against the existing order, takes a new form. You can see it in Rimbaud and in a marvelous version in the greatest of the turn-of-the-century Spanish-language poets, Ruben Dario.

This new version is not the cult of Satan. It is a series of images that come out of the Book of Revelation. There is a Millenarian idea, of an impending calamity, that something unspeakable is about to occur. You can see it in Yeats. This idea emerges as the new religious underpinning.

There is something self-ironic about the writers who were writing about Satan but there is nothing ironic or self-ironic about the writers who were drawing on images from the Book of Revelation.

At the end of the First World War, these currents in poetry, from the romantic to the symbolist poets at the end of the century and the beginning of the new century, finally convert themselves into a series of political movements, which are mass movements against the idea of liberalism. They are movements of rebellion against the belief in the many instead of the one, against the idea that life should be divided into a series of spheres—the public and the private, the state and society, the civil and the religious—and at some level, in different ways, they are movements of rebellion against the idea of rational analysis. Instead, they are movements in favor of the one, the solid, the granite, of authority, as opposed to rational analysis—sometimes of mysticism, but in any case of authority.

These movements were founded by Lenin, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, the leaders of the Iron Guard in Romania, various figures from the extreme right in France, and through every single country in Europe in some version or another—the Bolshevik movement on the Left, all of the other movements on the Right.

The movements were utterly different one from the other, and the Left and the Right hated each other, and sometimes the Right and the Right hated each other. But what I am struck by is the similarities.

4) In all of these cases, the similarities consisted of a belief in a deep myth, the Ur myth of the twentieth century and into our own time. The name of this myth is the Book of Revelation.

It is a variation on the themes of the symbolist poets. It takes the idea of transgressive rebellion, which the earlier Romantics had already come up with, of murder and rebellion as satanic acts of rebellion against liberal society, the conversion of this idea into the mythology that you see in the Book of Revelation, and then finally these political movements convert that same notion into political doctrines in this way.

The story in the Book of Revelation says: There is a people of God; the people of God are being afflicted and polluted by forces from within their own society, who worship at the synagogue of Satan. At the same time, the people of God are being afflicted by cosmic foes from abroad.

The people of God who are oppressed rise up in rebellion against these polluting forces from within and against the cosmic forces from abroad. The name of this war is Armageddon, and it lasts, according to St. John, the author of Revelation, one hour.

And at the end of the war, with all of those foes dispatched, the reign of Christ is established and lasts a thousand years. It is a perfect, stable society with no polluting elements. It is the millennium.

Each of the movements that arose in the period after World War I found a new way to tell this story. There was always a people of God. The people of God were proletariat. The people of God were the children of the Roman wolf, the Italian people. The people of God were the Catholic warriors of Christ, according to the King in Spain. The people of God were the Aryan race.

There were always polluting elements from within society, such as the bourgeoisie, or the Trotskyite wreckers, or the Jews, or the Masons, or the Communists.

There were always external foes from abroad. These were the forces of capitalist encirclement, or Anglo-American imperialism, or what Heidegger described as the “pincer pressure” of the United States and the Soviet Union pressing on the people of Germany.

There was always going to be a war, which would be a war of extermination against these external and internal foes. This war would be the class war, or the crusade in Franco’s version, or the biological war in the Nazi version.

At the end was always the perfect society, which was pictured either as a sci-fi leap into the future or as a return to the golden age of the past, usually as some version of both.

The Communist version was a leap into the future, though if you read your Marx carefully, you understand that this is also a leap into the primitive Communism of the past. And in the Soviet version there are many references to the primitive Communist traditions of the Russian peasants.

All of the right-wing versions were variations of a slightly different sort.

Mussolini was going to recreate the Roman Empire, and when he marched on Rome in 1922, he organized his followers into legions. They were centurions marching on Rome. The Roman Empire was going to be recreated in a modern version. They weren’t going to go back to the ancient version. It was would be a modern version of the Roman Empire.

Franco was going to recreate the medieval Crusades of Spain at its greatest. He would do this in a modern version.

Hitler was also going to recreate the Roman Empire. The Third Reich meant the new Reich after the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. He would recreate the Roman Empire, but in an Aryan version instead of an Italian version.

And likewise, this cult of the ancient, the reestablishing of the ancient, was a leap into the future at the same time, a modernism.

The symbolist cult of the Book of Revelation is also a cult of ancient myth, which is a cult of modernism at the same time. If you want to see that artistically, picture some of Picasso, where he is evoking the ancient myths of the Mediterranean but in the most modern of ways.

5) All of these movements proposed impractical programs which were unachievable except in one way, which was through mass death. Mass death showed that these were movements of transgressive rebellion, not movements of reform, not conservative movements of reform or social democratic movements of reform, Left or Right, but movements that would break through the ordinary morality of behavior, thus would break through the existing world view.

The reassuring demonstration that one had really gone beyond the ordinary was a commitment to mass death. All of these movements failed completely in achieving what they stated to be their worldly aims, and in achieving mass death.

6) The liberal society which in its weaknesses and contradictions and inability to conceive of the dark in human nature, the liberal society which in some way had inspired these movements and against which these movements now arose in rebellion, also had a great deal of trouble in identifying what these movements were.

We are all too familiar with the failures of the left-wing Fellow Travelers, who could not understand Stalinism and could only understand it as an exceptionally advanced form of social democracy. But you can take examples of this kind of error across the spectrum.

I write about the French socialists of the 1930s, who were a deeply democratic and liberal, in my sense of the word, movement with an impeccable record of liberal democratic credentials going back into the nineteenth century, without any of the aspects of Bolshevism, Marxism, or Leninism. One has to remember that in the 1930s, the French socialists were the enemies of Nazism and of the Right.

And yet, the majority of the French socialists finally voted for Marshall Pétain because they could not get themselves to understand the nature of Nazism. They managed to tell themselves that Nazism was a legitimate movement, that the Germans did have grievances, that the Treaty of Versailles had been unjust, that Hitler might be raving but he was stating truths.

The French socialists in their majority faction certainly did not regard themselves as anti-Semites, and yet they asked themselves: “Every time somebody rails against the Jews, is it always an example of anti-Semitism?” The French socialists were, by definition, the enemy of financiers—“and weren’t some of the financiers Jewish?”

The French socialists finally thought that the great danger to France was represented not by Hitler and the Nazis but by the hawks in their own society. And who was the leading hawk? Unfortunately, it was their own leader, the leader of the minority faction, who had managed to get himself elected Prime Minister, Léon Blum, whose ethnic identity now became itself a source of much speculation.

With this kind of reasoning, the French socialists in the majority faction not only managed to vote for Pétain, but quite a few ended up joining his government, and in this way the impeccable liberal democrats of the French Left managed to convert themselves into fascists.

7) The progress of totalitarianism depends on and is inseparable from this kind of liberal naïveté. Without the cooperation of the Fellow Travelers with Stalin, without the French anti-war socialists in the case of Hitler, without the naïveté of any number of conservatives and democratic right-wingers in the case of a variety of fascists and Nazis, without the naïveté even of the United States with regard to Hitler straight through the 1930s, it would be inconceivable to imagine that these movements would have gotten very far.

So it is a mistake to think of the totalitarian movements as isolated. They existed in a dynamic, and part of the dynamic is the liberal naïve unwillingness to recognize them as what they are.

8) Totalitarianism arose in Europe in the fifteen years after the First World War. In the first twenty-five years, similar or identical movements arose on the other side of the Mediterranean too, in the Muslim world.

One of these movements was certainly Muslim Communism, which everyone forgets about. In the interpretation of the clash of civilizations, one would imagine that a Western movement like Communism would be inconceivable in what is called a non-Western society. In fact, Communism was a large and lasting movement.

But the totalitarian ideal also arose in two other versions, which were distinctly not European. The radical Islamist movement—that is, the notion of Islam as a revolutionary political movement, not just as a religion—was founded in 1928 with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Pan-Arabist movement in its most radical version, the Baath, was founded formally in 1943 in Damascus.

These movements are conventionally seen as opposites. If you turn on the TV, you will see any number of people automatically saying that these movements have nothing in common; one is religious, the other is secular; they despise each other. And it is true that they have despised each other and have committed mutual massacres on a gigantic scale.

It is useful to point out the ways in which these two movements resemble each other. The totalitarian movements in Europe also were different one from the other, and sometimes were at war with one another, and yet there were underlying similarities.

In the case of Baathism and Islamism, these similarities are easy to see. There is a people of God. The people of God should be described as the “true Muslims” in the case of the Islamists, or as the “true Arabs” in the case of the Baath. The people of God are afflicted by internal corruptors within Muslim society. These internal corruptors are the Jews or the Masons or the Muslim hypocrites.

The people of God are afflicted by sinister external foes, Western imperialists or the worldwide Zionist conspiracy. The people of God will resist these internal foes and external foes in a gigantic war of Armageddon. This war will be the liberation of Jerusalem or it will be the jihad.

Afterwards the reign of purity will be established and this reign of purity is described in the case of both of those movements in the same way: it is the re-resurrection of the Caliphate of the seventh century in the years after the Prophet Mohammed. The Caliphate is described by each of these movements in a slightly different way. For the Islamists, it means the reinstating of Shar’iah or Qur’anic law. For the Baathists the emphasis is secular; it is the recreating, the resurrecting, of the Arab empire when the Arab empire was on the march.

Finally, these two movements have lacked for nothing in the realm of practical achievement – killing millions. In the last twenty years, several million people have been killed in the course of the Iran-Iraq war, which pitted one of these movements against the other—the mass human wave suicide attacks on the part of the Iranian Islamists against the cult of cruelty, and of chemical weapons on the part of the Baathists. It is estimated that between one and a half million and two million people were killed in Sudan; 100,000 are thought killed in Algeria over the last several years.

It is conventionally said that in these movements today we face nothing like Hitler or Stalin, but statistically this is not true.

9) The success of Muslim totalitarianism has depended on liberal naïveté—in fact, blindness. The eyes of the world have not been on these millions who have been killed in the last twenty years.

Always the liberals all over the world have wanted to describe these movements as in some way rational and conventional, as movements based on grievances—“The movements are anti-Zionist, and isn’t it the case that Israel has often been at fault?” “The movements are anti-American, and isn’t it the case that the United States has often been at fault?”

And these grievances do exist, but the effort to take them seriously tends often to distort their madness in such a way as to make it unrecognizable, for totalitarian doctrines are always mad. The Nazis thought they were engaged in a biological struggle. The Stalinists thought they were the proletariat and their enemies were the bourgeois exploiters. The Baathists and Islamists see a cosmic Zionist-Crusader conspiracy.

It is important to keep a sense of the madness in these ideas, even if it is true that in the years after World War I some Germans were oppressed outside of the borders of Germany, and Israel and the U.S. have done bad things.

10) All of the totalitarian movements were at bottom ideological movements, not based on a normal sense of grievances of political claims or expression of real-life interests, but movements based on ideological visions.

Each of these movements in the past was defeated not militarily but ideologically. World War II was violent and military, but although D-Day was important, de-Nazification was the actual victory. The defeat of Nazism militarily would not have been all that helpful if Germany, which is inherently an extremely wealthy and powerful society, had continued to remain a society of millions and millions of convinced Nazis.

The same is true now. The struggle we are involved in now has, had, and will continue to have a military aspect, but this aspect must be secondary to the ideological aspect, to the war of ideas.

The basic danger we are facing now is not weapons of mass destruction, per se, because we know very well that box cutters can be lethal weapons of the worst sort. The danger that we face is not inherently military; it’s not armies in the conventional sense. It is above all ideological. As long as millions of people are committed fanatically to doctrines that are ultimately mad and that follow in the tradition of the totalitarian madnesses of Europe in the twentieth century, the danger persists.

I maintain that the struggle we are involved in is, or ought to be, ultimately a war of ideas.



Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Sanjeev Sabhlok

View more posts from this author
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial