David Armitage offers tremendous insight into civil wars and how to understand them, but not in the usual social scientific or historical key.
Literally out of the blue, the brightest blue ever to grace the New York skyline, came the killer planes. Nothing would be the same again after that horrific September morning—or so everyone said, as the nation went numb with fury and incomprehension. But what did it mean? Aside from the usual imagination deficit that afflicts the over-satisfied and overfed, Americans lacked the conceptual categories needed to make sense of that sort of threat. For over a decade after the Iron Curtain crumbled, Francis Fukuyama’s comforting “end-of-history” narrative, described in The National Interest in 1989, had prevailed. Proclaiming “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution,” it declared that ideology was finished, and the good guys had won. The “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” had eliminated all rival political systems. Those “ideas in the sense of large unifying world views that might best be understood under the rubric of ideology” had been refuted. Evidently, not everyone got the memo.
Not for the first time had mankind imagined itself to have buried “history” for good, to be replaced by an ideal, “rational” new world order. Nor would it be the last. As I explain in my book The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom, the yearning for a post-apocalyptic order devoid of divisive ideologies, when a “final form of human government” wins out worldwide, has ancient roots and persists to this day. Though Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, was more nuanced than his essay, while he concedes that rationality has not fully triumphed yet, he nevertheless still holds out hope for eventual salvation on earth. He blames nationalism and ethnocentrism on the “irrational” desire to feel superior to others, a predilection he calls megalothymia (from the Greek “thymos,” meaning a sense of self-worth, or “recognition”). Specifically, nationalism is “not fully rational because it extends recognition only to members of a given national or ethnic group”—naturally, one’s own.
Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche observed that for men throughout history, the desire to feel superior to—and exercise power over—others is intense and seductive. This “kind of strength that excites fear was considered preeminently divine: here was the origin of authority; here one interpreted, heard, sought wisdom.” But it is not irrational, nor even a-rational, if it achieves the intended effect of mesmerizing others, as it generally does. Reason is not always positive: it can lead to both good and bad; which is why very smart people can, and often do, perform the devil’s work. Conversely, not everything that is not rational is necessarily bad, quite the contrary. Paradigmatically love, while compatible with reason, transcends it.
The Evils of Hubris
Fukuyama would have been better served to use a different word from Greek antiquity to designate the yearning for recognition, power, and superiority. That word is hubris: mankind’s tragic flaw. Hubris may be perilous, but not irrational: it is essentially evil. Camouflaged in deceptively benevolent and lofty rhetorical garb, it can be seductive. But make no mistake: if modern versions look different from the old, the roots are ancient, the effects nearly always deadly.
“In Greek tradition,” writes Luciano Pellicani, “hubris is the excessive arrogance of man in the face of the gods, the desire to be as and more than the gods, the refusal of man’s finiteness. On the basis of [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s well-known theory that ‘man is fundamentally the desire to be God,’ hubris is inevitably a natural and constant temptation.” Thus:
[h]e is condemned to live an insensate life and destined to be the food of time… [Man] aspires with all his might to live in a transfigured world. This is the existential source of all religions of salvation and all metaphysical needs. It is also the source of the revolutionary spirit and its demiurgic project to reshape the totality of being. In other words: the objective of revolution is the divinization of humanity.
Indeed, the self-divinization of humanity lies at the heart of modernity as it evolved in the West. Pace F.A. Hayek, it is the species’ fatal conceit and not the pretense of knowledge. Dubbing this yearning for divinization as merely irrational won’t help us either understand or address it head-on.
It certainly lies at the root of the putatively divinely-inspired Salafist-Islamism that gave rise to al-Qaeda, the global jihad responsible for the Apocalypse of 9/11 which continues to threaten civilization, occasional setbacks notwithstanding. “For al-Qaeda, Islam is revolution not just in the sense of an insurgency but an ideological and political sense as well,” writes Michael W. S. Ryan, citing al-Qaeda strategist Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi’s summons to holy war against the West. Engaging in a sustained, well organized, long-term struggle must be based on classical guerrilla warfare, writes al-Qurashi. Small wonder that he finds inspiration in “Mao Tse-tung [who] in his writings about the revolutionary war focused on the fundamental relationships between war and politics.” Just as Mao had been driven by hubris to control the fate of his countrymen—and of others—no matter what the cost in lives and suffering, so his Islamist disciples wage war against the so-called “infidels” convinced of their quasi-divine superiority.
Al-Qaeda and its offshoots have not been defeated despite the trillions spent and lives lost in the effort. Quite the contrary, writes Bruce Hoffman: it is “a movement whose long-term strategy is showing alarming signs of coalescing.” Hoffman also agrees with the Worldwide Threat Assessment that the intelligence community presented to Congress on February 13, 2018, that “its affiliates are getting stronger” as well. And “this isn’t happening simultaneously, independently or serendipitously—it’s part of an overall global strategic plan that al-Qaida is stubbornly pursuing.” Yet nearly two decades after that black day in September when the odor of death filled the nation and the world, we have yet to understand what happened, in historical context. For that, however, we need to have a better grasp of the particular ideas, not only the subconscious drives, at the root of global conflict, including our own preconceptions that prevent us from seeing ourselves candidly, with a minimum of wishful thinking. And to appreciate the kind of world that Salafi-jihadists are seeking to establish, we have to understand the utopian temptation.
But that takes words. And considering how the language of public discourse has been twisted and turned to the point that ambiguity now reigns supreme, this is no easy task: more often than not, we end up talking past one another. We still live in a post-Babel world as much as ever, if not more. And failing to understand one another, we hardly understand ourselves. The biblical story needs to be revisited. Once upon a time, though once again….
As recounted in Genesis, initially “all the world spoke a single language and used the same words.” Having settled in Babel, men sought to construct a great city there, “with a tower that reaches to the heavens,” which then and now implied both literal and sacred height. God naturally noticed, and worried that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” should they succeed: it was the same worry He had expressed after the first couple defied His admonition against eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It was time for another lesson. God thus preemptively dispersed humanity and “made a babble of the language of all the world.” Better to babble than to imagine that heaven could be reached by mere humans.
The babble has only worsened since, words routinely being twisted to suit political ends, as inflammatory rhetoric advancing misleading ideologies proliferate. We now have “democratic” nations that hold sham elections; totalitarian theocratic “republics” that are monarchies in modern garb; and “left vs. right” is no clearer than “red vs. black” (or blue, for that matter). So too “green” is the color of both Islam and the environmental movement, a coincidence that should concern them both. Even if we never attain the clarity of plainsong, we can seek to reduce the cacophony—if only to prevent unwittingly self-inflicted injury. Most important, we must prevent the demise of man’s most precious gift: individual freedom. For without liberty, man is mere animated clay.
The philosophy based on that principle has traditionally been called liberalism. It originally consisted in the promotion of political and economic liberty, referring to the equal protection of life, liberty, and property through limited government. In the early days of the twentieth century, however, the term’s meaning was subtly but quite deliberately changed by proponents of Progressivism. When they proclaimed freedom (a term they generally preferred to “liberty”), self-declared “Progressives” had in mind principally an end to economic inequality, soon known as “social justice.” The philosopher John Dewey would thus famously write, in Liberalism and Social Action (1935), that activist government and social reconstruction had “virtually come to define the meaning of liberal faith.” Dewey had turned the concept precisely on its head. Poor Adam Smith must be exasperated as he turns in his grave watching Dewey and his Progressive colleagues obfuscating the concept of “natural liberty.” The semantic subversion had begun.
Thereafter, the original liberals would often be called “conservatives,” and more recently, “neoliberal.” Under siege and in retreat, some of them (e.g., Milton Friedman) have tried to resist relinquishing the name that best captured their philosophy by describing themselves as “classical liberal,” or even Whigs (like Hayek); others (notably Frank Meyer) sought to take refuge in what they call “new conservatism,” and a sizeable number consider the term “libertarian” least confusing. The all-too-common accusations of “fascism” by progressive-liberals occasion howls of pain from their unwitting targets. As the current partisan political discourse suffers in almost equal measure from ignorance and venality, the ensuing cacophony delights America’s enemies even as it poisons the domestic debate. In the verbal dueling by expletives, the contestants all lose. Meanwhile, the war on freedom is being won by proxy, its foes watching gleefully from the sidelines.
It had been a smart, indeed brilliant, move by the Progressives to appropriate the label. For since the Declaration of Independence is the iconic liberal document of the American Revolution, its aura implicitly blesses all who supposedly fall under it. Accordingly, today’s progressives (having dropped the capitalization during consecutive rebootings) continue to bathe in its radiance, meanwhile relegating conservatism to inertia: “disposed to preserve existing conditions.” Deceptively anodyne, “conservatism” is thus indelibly scarred by the ignominious imprint of timidity and opportunism. Consider its synonyms: obscurantism, dogmatism, reaction, illiberalism, opposition. Nor is “traditionalism” much better, for even that is relative: traditions have notoriously checkered pedigrees. Never mind that most “conservatives” in America today are dedicated to the American revolutionary tradition and its commitment to liberty.
Calling all Fascists?
No wonder the general public is confused when Russian kleptocrats, Chinese censors, Islamist defenders of stoning, and white supremacists are labeled “conservative” alongside the intellectual heirs of John Locke and the Founders. Since “conservative,” moreover, is often used interchangeably with “right-wing”—capitalizing on the common reading of that term as equivalent to “racist,” “fascist,” and “Nazi”—as soon as someone is thus pigeonholed and smeared, the cards are solidly stacked against any kind of sensible discussion. Such profound conceptual squalor cries out for major semantic housecleaning.
In a debased political culture, smearing is bound to become an equal opportunity pastime. Journalists and politicians of various stripes compete for first prize, and both constituencies win. Writes Peter S. Goodman, former New York Times economics editor, now editor of the International Business Times: “Political hacks trade in the labels of right and left because it allows them to manipulate the public with shortcut phrases.” Their enablers are lazy journalists who like pernicious “labels that perpetuate division” because these sell papers, generating “the sort of tension that feeds narrative.” Ultimately, charges Goodman, “left and right are the props of the cynical class who use them to convey a sense of sophistication in place of the messy, difficult work of finding things out, uncovering truths and reckoning with social problems in their fullest human dimension.” If only more members of the media would share his integrity. To say nothing of politicians.
Goodman is right that “no ideological position can be counted on to deliver the facts.” And without facts, there can be no civilization. There certainly cannot be dialogue. Similarly, Crispin Sartwell denounces “the arrangement of positions along the left-right axis… [as] conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent. And any position anywhere along it is infested by contradictions.” In a word, the axis is “bogus.” Excommunicating a specific set of words, of course, does not resolve conceptual disagreements that are real, and dangerous.
But labels aside, what must strike even, or rather especially, the ordinary observer unencumbered by academese is that autocracies of whatever stripe, whether secular or theocratic, tend to promise utopian goals: an end to conflict, to inequality, to sin, venality, etc.—fill in the blank. At the same time, they oppose dialogue and outlaw pluralism and generally demonize democratic self-rule as evil and/or anachronistic, which must be systematically opposed by any means, if not outright destroyed. Meanwhile, their leaders naturally expect unquestioning, whether real or simulated, adulation. It may seem ironic that the same people who consider themselves the most progressive of democrats should often find allies in virulently anti-Western kleptocracies. What they appear to have in common is a yearning for a heaven-on-earth devoid of strife, inequality, antagonism, and above all, selfishness. In other words: a utopian millenarian ideology that defies reality, ignoring facts. (At least this is true of the naïve; the disingenuous are another story.) Utopia is like heroin: the euphoria is ephemeral, illusory, and deadly.
In The Concept of Freedom, published in 1962, Frank S. Meyer traces the idyllic vision all the way back to Pharaoh Akhenaton who ruled in the 14th century BCE; it was revived in the Hellenic world a few centuries later, then followed by Gnostic sects of early Christianity:
The myth of the Tower of Babel, like the historical record of the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaton who attempted to reconstruct Egyptian society in a single generation, testifies to so early an existence of the belief that men can create a perfect world.… Always since, it has been endemic as an underground aspect of Western thought, appearing now and again in the Utopianism and millenarianism of some medieval heresies….. Every revolutionary movement of the last two centuries…ends by deifying the state it has captured and theologizing the concept of the state.
Concludes Meyer: “The dominant ideologies of the 20th century… are the latest forms taken by this Utopian attitude.”
Were Meyer alive today, he would add global Salafi-jihadism to the list. Recent studies reveal the full extent of the continuity between the modern version of jihadism and Western millenarian utopian ideologies or political religions. As a result, in the twenty-first century, affinities between otherwise disparate anti-Western states and organizations have led to threads of cooperation that pose exponentially greater danger to civilization and freedom, as suicidal fanatics gain access to the latest technology.
But external threats aside, the enemy that should most concern the West lies within. Fukuyama explained in an interview published in October 2018: “What I said back then  is that one of the problems with modern democracy is that it provides peace and prosperity but people want more than that… liberal democracies don’t even try to define what a good life is, it’s left up to individuals, who feel alienated, without purpose….” Fukuyama is right about that; but when people who instead of being grateful for the benefits of freedom become ready prey to peddlers of political religions that promise to eliminate greed and envy, they endanger civilization itself. Demagogic promises of substantive “equality” come at a steep price, namely, the erosion, if not abolition, of the genuine formal equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If these rights were self-evident to our Founders, they are hardly so today. But that should come as no surprise, as the ever-realistic, great little giant Milton Friedman knew too well. “The battle for freedom,” wrote Friedman in his 1994 re-introduction to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, “must be won over and over again.” It’s our turn now.