A professor at the LSE, James Hughes, in a December lecture said:
I can’t think of a more radicalised government than the Bush administration….well…maybe North Korea.
I cannot think of a more stupid statement from someone of age, experience and learning. Compare this to the Russian doctrine on the use of military force in foreign policy:
Alexei G. Arbatov, The Transformation of Russian Military Doctrine: Lessons Learned from Kosovo and Chechnaya, Marshall Centre Papers 2 (Garmish-Partenkirchen: George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, July 2000).
The main lesson learned is that the goal justifies the means. The use of force is the most efficient problem solver, if applied decisively and massively. Negotiations are of dubious value and are to be used as a cover for military action. Legality of state actions, observation of laws and legal procedures, and humanitarian suffering are of secondary significance relative to achieving the goal. Limiting one’s own troop causalities is worth imposing massive devastation and collateral fatalities on civilian populations. Foreign public opinion and the position of Western governments are to be discounted if key Russian interests are at state. A concentrated and controlled mass media campaign is the key to success.
This is classical Russian thinking, redolent of Clauswitz: massive force, the irrelevance of the question of legitimacy and the need to have an objective and to stick to that aim. The result might be a hard war or massive civilian casualties but the aim of a war fought for clear national interests is to achieve the political objective set. And the result is that Russian borders states, though turbulent in places, are subservient to Moscow’s interests and even Chechnya has seen the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Now compare this to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both were fought with the aim of overthrowing a hostile regime deemed to threaten US national interests and both were fought to rapid and successful conclusions. The occupation stages saw a transformation of US military tactics and strategy towards a much more decentralised, “boots on the ground” mode in order to defeat a dangerous insurgency, which broke into civil war in Iraq. The US was able to defeat one insurgency and has badly damaged another without adopting the Russian doctrine of massive force.
So how is the Russian doctrine as applied in Chechnaya, Georgia and the salient states less radicalised that that of the USA? Perhaps the professor was referring to international law?
Well in this case, we can compare Iraq, which is cited as the most egregious example of US aggression and Georgia. Russia justified its intervention on the grounds that the South Ossetians were Russian citizens – yet those citizens DID live in Georgian territory and even if the territory was de facto independent, Russia had no grounds under international law to go to war as this did not count as self defence. By contrast, the US argument that Iraq was in breach of obligations, which reactivated the UN Security Council Resolutions dating back to the Gulf War, made use of international law and precedent.
In the language of the time, Russia was behaving as a rogue state. Yet, it attracted very little criticism beyond a short period after the fighting in Georgia ended. By contrast, the rancour over Iraq has yet to fully cease.
Russia has actively pursued and murdered dissidents and critics around the world including an attempt to kill a US journalist in New York. By contrast, the US since 2001, has actively pursued, captured or killed Islamic terrorists around the world. The differences in these two imperial policies ought to be stark to anyone. The Russians have hunted down internal opponents, including the case of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. The US has pursued active enemies belonging to terrorist groups.
If James Hughes meant internal politics, he could not be more wrong. He accords the US administration under President Bush second place in the most radicalised state on the planet, reserving first place for North Korea. I cannot think of a more stupid comparison or one which reveals his own prejudices more starkly than this.
By radicalised, it is clear that Professor Hughes means “on a path towards totalitarianism”. North Korea is the most totalitarian and vicious state on the planet. The US had the Patriot Act. You could probably number on one hand, the states which are less totalitarian than the USA.
This brings us to the title and the implicit question: why do leftists in general, and leftist academics in particular, view a Republican administration in the US as a totalitarian (radicalised) force?
In part, I believe, this stems from an inability to analyse Republicans in any but the most prejudicial terms. Republicans are characterised as “neocons”, “warmongers” and “Christian fundamentalists” and this attitude is so ingrained in leftist prejudice, that any calumny can be associated with Republicans and believed. For a comparison, note the language used about the Tea Party movement (racist, religious fundamentalist, angry white men etc) and the language used when examining the #Occupy movement (protesters, progressives, grass roots). Both terminological sets are not descriptive but prescriptive: the Tea Party is conservative, it must be racist etc.
The language is motivated by a desire to demonise and the same desire is present in the lazy presentation of the US under Bush as only less totalitarian than North Korea. The aim is not to describe a reality but is one of wish fulfilment. A Republican administration is routinely watched for signs that it is about to turn into a totalitarian fundamentalist regime, hence cries even in 2002 of “Take our country back!” from the radicalised wing of the Democratic party. Note that I am using radicalised in relation to the Democratic party as a reference to the leftist radicals and activists who dominate the socialist/liberal wing of the Party.
A fantasy is being routinely acted out, even by people who should know better (academics) and here I am forced to turn again to Richard Landes’ theme of millenarianism. Demonisation forms a part of millenarian beliefs and doctrinal structures. If believers value the ideas which will lead to a better world (even if these consist of the wished for absence of something), then doubters, sceptics and political and cultural opponents are deeply ignorant (of the Truth) or deeply wicked (for rejecting the Truth).
There is another aspect to this as well. What we broadly call leftist or left-wing ideologies have largely collapsed, though Marxist prejudices retain a very strong hold in academia (especially in the USA) and left-wing political thought is, by and large, reactionary, in the sense that it is against secular developments. So a leftist can be against capitalism or against globalisation or against war, but except in the latter case (a nebulous belief in ‘peace’), this system does not require the believer or activist to be for anything in particular. In a certain way, this is very appealing as it returns the individual to the ‘dream’ stage of political thinking in which the object (political objective) becomes subliminal and thus immune to criticism, even if it remains too vague to articulate.
Thus an OWSer activist in New York can campaign against “the banks” or against “capitalism” and still retain a sense of destiny because what replaces the present wickedness will inevitably be better. However, unlike classical reactionaries, the political object remains future-orientated and not located in a past which is shared both historically and in folk memory. These are not conservative reactionaries. Indeed, one might call them radical reactionaries as they wish for change as an end because they no longer are able to imagine the means without becoming subjected to scepticism or doubt. Analysed through a millenarian perspective, this is a resort to preaching as a format, naming that which is desirable and that which is wicked and calling upon the faithful to take this knowledge into their hearts.
It is possible to understand leftist prejudices constituting a series of articles of faith, forming the basis of a pseudo-religion with a common set of assumptions, prejudices and moral precepts. And as a community bounded by a religious or customary set of moral principles, precepts, abjurations and evocations, the leftist political community is as many other political and civil communities are, partly defined by opposition. Yet, as outlined earlier in this piece, the leftist community places itself in opposition to a vanished or even fantastical opposition and applies the demands of fundamental resistance to its own attitudes towards those who do not share their beliefs. In part, this would shed some light on why leftist political groups are highly inclined towards internecine warfare and splitting into new political factions.
Given these weaknesses as a community, the sense of oppositional definition in times of weakness is accentuated as a subconscious means of protecting the political community on the Left. Hence, James Hughes described a Republican administration as the nearest thing to a totalitarian regime in the West. A domination of the political world by a political faction which is not a part of their community (i.e. not Leftist) is treated as a catastrophe of gigantic proportions and one which cannot be reconciled with the assumptions, prejudices and beliefs of the Leftist community. Given that Leftists routinely treat conservatives as moral and intellectual degenerates, there can be no questioning of Leftist superiority complexes and the Left must then go over into rhetorically violent opposition, when criticism of a Republican president becomes in the hysteria of the day, an act of patriotism and of “speaking Truth to Power” in which the Leftists fall into two not incompatible roles: those of prophet and of revolutionary opposition.
Yet, given the absence of political programmes and articulated beliefs (it remains my contention that much of what is expressed as opposition is a reaction to another’s rejection of their subliminal political tropes) and in the aftermath of the political emasculation of the Left, all that is available to the Leftists is overt opposition and insistence on the primacy of shared narratives. This can be seen in the fantasy of peace in Palestine, in the dissatisfied sacralisation of international laws and institutions, the reaction to political arguments which do not place the state at the centre of economic and social life and the confusion over collectivism and individualism.
The utopian dreams of the Left have not collapsed as such but aspects of the articulated forms of these have subsided back into the collective unconsciousness of the Left. The appeal is still strong to the believers but the ideas are in flux or increasingly irrelevant to the present. The superiority complexes of the Leftist political community have left them dangerously vulnerable to cognitive dissonance and perilously tempted by a series of sentimental political tropes and certainties which collectively represent a political dead end. I will end with an analogy: even a stopped clock, tells the correct time twice a day. Thus it is with the Leftist political community.