Friday, June 16, 2006

Totalitarianism and the annihilation of the present

Two good, one not so good, concepts are outlined by Paul Berman in this interview with Alan Johnson for the latest edition of Democratiya.

First, on the nature of totalitarianism:
Alan Johnson: And what did you find in common between the Muslim totalitarianism of today and the European totalitarianism of yesterday?

Paul Berman: First, an underlying mythology: people of good who are oppressed by a cosmic conspiracy which is external and internal at the same time; an all-exterminating war of annihilation; and after, the arrival of a grand utopia that is going to be a leap forward into the sci-fi future, and, at the same time, a leap back into a lost golden age. This kind of mythology underlies all the totalitarian movements, in one fashion or another.
This is exactly right. There is the idealised past - but it is the distant, mythical past. In this sense, it might not even be strong enough to describe such movements as reactionary since the latter generally want to turn the clock back to a more recent time, like the 1950s or the 19th century - pasts that are at least historically recognisable.

Then there is the looking forward to a utopian future, which is understood as a recreation of this mythical past. It is to be returned to because the present is understood as being irredeemably degraded, which brings us to the third element. Utopia requires the annihilation of the present. This is why all totalitarian movimentos are violent. Evolution is impossible; newness only comes from the destruction of the present order. Totalitarian movements are always and everywhere violent re-birth cults.

The second has to do with the nature of religion. Responding to the criticism that his treatment of Islam is completely without nuance:
Paul Berman: I don't write about Islam at all. I only write about Islamism. I assume that Islam, like the other great religions, is a huge piano keyboard on which one could play this tune or that. Islam isn't the cause of the problem. Islam is the setting of the problem. Islam has offered a language for the totalitarian movements but an anti-totalitarian language could just as easily be drawn out of Islam, and is by some people.
This too seems to me to be exactly right and a counter to those who assume terrorism is the natural outflow from religion as such. Because books like the Bible and the Koran have so much material, along with ages of religious tradition and interpretation layered over them - it is not only possible that numerous interpretations can spring from them, it is inevitable. Therefore the simplistic approach to religion, whereby the most sexist, homophobic and/or violent texts are sought out and used as a stick with which to beat the religious is fairly pointless because it misunderstands the way religious traditions function.

Less convincing, however, was Paul Berman's treatment of the power of ideas. It's one thing to counter the notion that ideas have absolutely no life of their own independently from their social and economic context but quite another to turn the power of ideology into a kind of monism, which I thought Paul Berman came close to doing. For instance, drawing from the Soviet experience...
"The rise of Communism, then the collapse of Communism is something that took place, above all, in the history of ideas. Communist ideas arose because they were very powerful and appeared to be very convincing. And they were defeated intellectually, not militarily. The Eastern bloc did not collapse out of material poverty. It collapsed out of intellectual poverty."
But they weren't defeated intellectually in abstraction from the framework of economic history. The intellectual challenge to the ideas behind the Soviet model was effective precisely because it could be demonstrated quite clearly that it failed to achieve in practice what it promised in theory. Communism lacked the mechanisms to effectively harness technological innovation to the business of production and this is why Kruschev's boast that the Soveit Union would 'bury' the West proved to be a false prophecy. With Islamism it is the same - the defeat of the ideas requires them to be seen to fail in practice.

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