Seamus Deane — Apocalypse Now

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by Seamus Deane

In its drive for universal dominion, the most barbaric global force of the last seventy years has been American foreign policy. Among its most notable creations has been American domestic right-wing nationalism. By extension, this has been reproduced, as part of the enormous projection of American power, as similar domestic nationalisms in numerous parts of the globe. So exact has this process of reproduction been that the leaders of these ‘populist’ movements bear an uncanny resemblance to one another, boiler-plate reproductions of a composite of gangsterism, deceit, violence, ignorance, racism, baroque evangelical religious convictions and a matching derision for expertise (a contemporary mode of anti-intellectualism), plus billionaire support and well-honed social media skills. They include Trump, Netanyahu, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi, Berlusconi, Salvini, Orbán, Erdoğan, Kaczynski, Sisi — to name but a few.

The USA had been producing Republican grotesques for some decades —Nixon, Reagan, the elder Bush, but then, like fully evolved mutations of a political climate change, emerged two paragons in excelsis of the type – George W. Bush and Trump. The sun belts and the bible belts had combined to produce the first three of these for the Republican party. Trump, though, went further; he fused them with the rust belt(s) and made bigotry, racism, resentment, the celebration of economic inequality, the most active core values of an under-educated and brainwashed electorate. These became renovatory for a party that needed to find some species of ideology to bolster its practices of gerrymander, voter suppression and non co-operation that, since Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, had become daily exercise routines for a Republican Party, determined by every possible means to ward off the threat of demographic change. These populist movements also bear strong family resemblances – fundamentalist religious furies, bug-eyed on the same issues, like hostility to abortion, immigration, support for internal domestic and for international violence; white racism, always front and centre, imperial fantasies, enmities old and new – Russia, China, Iran, Islam,’socialism’ –and a global economic system run like a protection racket.

‘We can’t predict the future but we can always change the past’ is an old joke but works also as a rationale for many historians. The past American century could do with some revisionism; otherwise, it would be possible to believe that the astonishing power and incompetence of the US military and political classes have had no rival since the Fall of Rome. Unopposed in the air, the US has spent twenty years in Afghanistan, seventeen years in Iraq, in Syria openly since 2014, bombing non-stop in all.  We can only roughly count in multi-millions the civilian deaths inflicted by the USA, starting in 1950, from Korea to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, across Asia to the ruined Middle East – not to mention Central and South America. American presidencies are primarily remembered in the wider world for catastrophic war: Truman (atomic war on Japan, pulverizing of North Korea), Johnson (chemical warfare, (plus white phosphorus and napalm), Vietnam), Reagan (Central America), Bush Snr. (Panama, Iraq), Clinton (Serbia, Iraq), Bush Jnr. (Iraq, Afghanistan), Obama (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan) and the proxy wars of its criminal allies, Israel (Gaza, Lebanon) and Saudi Arabia (Yemen).

One can show this policy of warmongering has been long established, especially among what we call western democracies – Britain, France, the USA – as they have feasted, since the mid nineteenth-century, on the remains of the decaying Spanish, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and have taken, by force and duplicity, the natural mineral resources of the Middle East, especially oil. The fall of the Soviet Empire has stimulated comparable political appetites. Wearing the bib of NATO, the US has been, since 1989, digesting several former Soviet republics. The right-wing nationalism of Ukraine, for instance, has served as an especially piquant sauce while a cold-eyed Putin, on the other side of the table, is compelled to watch this steady mastication of the remnant of the former USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries. With Yugoslavia dissolved, Serbia bombed, NATO and the EU expand almost in lockstep in the process of incorporating the former enemy and its ‘near abroad’, now ringed by US military bases and heavily infiltrated by the CIA. Only the Covid-19 plague has prevented the proposed display of minatory American/ NATO military games in the regions where the Soviets once destroyed the spectacular Nazi military machine.

Perhaps the radical switch to global domination came with World War I when European interstate wars were magnified into a global struggle. More specifically, it came with the refusal of the US Senate in 1919 to ratify Woodrow Wilson’s proposed League of Nations on the grounds that the USA refused to be dragged into wars on behalf of others. It would choose its own wars and when it did, they would be global. Or one might say, as Carl Schmitt did, that the change came with the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928 or, to give its full title, General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy. That was interlinked with the Stimson doctrine of 1932 which declared that the USA had, according to the 1928 pact, the right to decide the justice or injustice of any territorial change anywhere in the world. Schmitt pointed out that this global interventionism had been repudiated by the USA only a lifetime earlier, in 1861, when the UK recognized the Confederacy as a ‘belligerent faction’ in the American Civil War. Such recognition was itself an intervention. Intervention had by 1932 become a more doctrinal affair, with global range and yet its legitimacy was confined by Stimson to the decision of one nation alone.[1]

So as the low dishonest decade of the 30s dawned, the system of international law was decisively shifted from its former European to an American base; interstate agreements and the ‘bracketing’ of war were, by fiat, globalized. War, as such, had been criminalized at the Versailles Treaty of 1918. The then most recent civil war in Russia, begun by the Whites and supported warmly but not competently by the UK, produced a polity the very principles of which challenged the legitimacy of the Great Power States in particular.

At first, it appeared that Europe was the decisive zone of struggle across the fifty years of war and inter-war. But, in the long run, it was not. The increasingly possible German turn to the left after WWI was halted by the brutal Freikorps murders of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht in 1918. Contrastingly, the ominous turn to the right in Germany was finally facilitated in 1933, when the fragile Weimar republic was transferred by the vain and treacherous von Hindenburg to Hitler’s Nazi grip for safe keeping.[2]  The long French turn to the alt-right had begun with the Dreyfus case of 1894-1906; when Charles Maurras was sentenced to life for treason in 1954, he declared his punishment was revenge for Dreyfus, served cold after sixty years. Right and left in France had long been in dangerous equipoise. Only a year separates the firing-squad executions of Marc Bloch by the Nazis and Pierre Laval by De Gaulle’s government. Both died with ‘Vive la France!’ on their lips. Pétain just beat de Gaulle to the punch in that instance.  A close-run thing in both Germany and France.

Yet these tragic national moments quickly lost much of their dramatic force, especially in the ‘near abroad’ retrospect of the European Community. The angles of intrastate and interstate frictions began to alter in the larger and yet more shriveled spaces of the Cold War. Hitler’s fanatical concentration on the Russian front was the one element of his strategic approach that survived his defeat and became American doctrine. The USSR, fellow- and pre-eminent victor in the War, had been the real enemy of the USA all along. The question had been, which would destroy Germany first? The answer was the USSR, but not before being irretrievably weakened by its losses, its demographic profile an indicator of the catastrophic long-term damage it suffered then.[3]

National post-war conflicts revealed the intramural war that had been strategically conducted in secreto in 1939-45 and became manifest thereafter in the Cold War. Its first battle was to decide who got the credit for winning World War II. Some of it had to be ceded to Russia; but was it Soviet or Mother Russia? The latter, who had beaten the last world conqueror, Napoleon, had (the story went) done it again, despite then Czarist, now Stalinist, tyranny. But, alas, it was the Soviets who appeared at Yalta and there were powerful communist parties in France and Italy. Communist contributions to the defeat of fascism in those countries were first downplayed by the domestic right and then almost erased by the  exemplary and brutal US intervention in the Italian 1948 elections. (The Irish embassy in Rome co-operated in relaying American dollars to the Vatican for the support of Catholic candidates.) The past had to be rewritten for the sake of the future.

Yet the great damage the Americans sought to do to the communists in Europe was almost superfluous, since the Soviets did it for them with their robotic repression and their manufacture of atheistic boredom outmatching the US manufacture of consumerism and kitsch religious fervor. The Americans were able to begin the Cold War by obliterating North Korea in 1950, secure in the belief that most of Western Europe had by then been made safe for democracy and capitalism; in the Iberian peninsula, for dictatorship and capitalism. Eastern Europe and the Balkans were anaesthetized. The geo-political balance was not only kept but reinforced during the ‘trente glorieuses’ years of prosperity, 1945-75, even through the breakdowns and massacres of the fading Anglo-French empires, (India-Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Algeria, Indo-China). Colonies re-coagulated into the Third World. The Cold War reached its peak of tension in the Cuban crisis of 1963. As the Soviet Union twitched towards its demise, Western Asia (now the Middle East) began to overtake it as the focal point of global struggle. America’s Israel began its wider wars for domination; apartheid and genocide, well-learned in Nazi Germany, now practiced in the lone surviving fascist state, were re-programmed as democracy and defence of the Western promontory in the East. Israel’s America outfaced the new Great Beast, Islam, its ramshackle, mostly Arab, autocracies and their vast lakes of oil, with fleets of weapons from the Pentagon and televangelistic ravings, once anti-semitic, now pro-Israeli, on the Jewish role in the End Days on the new sound-track as the bombs rained down.

Perhaps the idea that has infiltrated most deeply behind democratic defences, partly because they had decayed or been exposed or had often simply been pretences, was that bureaucratic and discursive modes of government were of their nature not only given to moral emptiness but were actually devoted to the creation of it. In its first and still most influential modern articulation by Carl Schmitt, in the Germany of the 1920s and early 30s, this first appeared as a clarifying analysis, parading the virtue of decisionism as a power to overcome Weimarian chaos but, in addition, as a theory of power, envisioned as a surgical act that cleared the functioning of a body politic blocked by endless discussion .  This is often and rightly regarded as a defence of dictatorship but it is perhaps even more effective in its negative force as the claim that deliberative democracy cannot but abandon basic moral instincts in order fully to be itself.[4] Although the stain of that accusation spread quite slowly within Europe and the USA, it began to accelerate in the sixties, precisely when democratic protest against the Vietnam war, against sclerotic authority, seemed to have gained democracy a high prestige. The reaction was quick. Ronald Reagan, elected as governor of California, promptly carried out his notorious assault on the Berkeley campus, staff and city itself (1967-69). He was one of the first populists, ruthless, vacuous, a commercial for American capitalism as the main attraction with Religion as the B-movie and a Las Vegas-Biblical rhetoric for both. Further, a remarkable shift within academic discourse began in that decade and continues still. In brief it involved a deflection into the American academy and political world of the negativing power of Carl Schmitt’s thought. This deflection was achieved by the adoption by a kind of whining ricochet of Carl Schmitt via the writings and teachings of Leo Strauss in a concerted ambush on modernity and the Enlightenment.

Quite how this took place is an intricate story. An early recruit into the anti-modernity narrative was Edmund Burke. A predominantly Catholic, Irish and Jesuit commentary replaced utility with prudence as the key term in his thought and his revolutionaries became the subhuman others by whom the Christian civilization was suborned at its centre. [5] Stalinism also played its feral role in the standard refiguring of the Russian revolution as a replay of the French; the interpretive rein was tightened to restrain all revolution, revolution as such, from destroying that mass of inarticulable belief  which, for the Straussian version of the plebs, was their zone of the ignorant sublime while the governing elite communicated actual knowledge by esoteric semaphore.[6]  One problem was that those—like, say, Allan Bloom—who most loudly lamented the disappearance of the deep truths of tradition were themselves the most pernicious betrayers of it. If one can speak of an American or any other kind of titular national ‘Mind’, it only reveals how much time the author wasted in reading the ‘classics’ that are ostensibly to save it. [7] But the very vulgarity of this discourse is what made it so amenable to such political ends as it was used for in the days of Wolfowitz and Cheney and their ilk during the bloody wars, by no means ended yet, of the Bush administration. The ever-expanding ‘war on terror’ has, on top of slaughter, produced an unexampled exodus of people from Western Asia and the Middle East, victims of the terror of a war which was itself the most intense instalment yet in a long series of assaults already decades long. Launched by lies, supported by sycophants, equipped with weaponry whose users rejoiced in its unmatched destructive and annihilating  range, the war pulverized helpless populations, their homes, the infrastructure of their cities, hospitals and mosques. Their remnants fled to the refugee camps, the snail-trail of misery left by the passage of the American war-machine. Now the region is dominated by carious, aftermath political regimes and sectarian civil wars, while Europe’s shores seethe with displaced immigrants. The bombing of Libya by NATO made it a war zone, opened Africa wide to the ISIS created in Iraq. The Taliban have returned in Afghanistan, the Shia crescent from Iran to Syria has consolidated, Yemen has became an apocalypse under Saudi bombs and in the midst of all, Trump, after a series of assassinations and displays of random force, has suddenly announced America First and started to withdraw, leaving behind Bush’s initial and now unimaginable mess.

After WWII, Alexandre Kojève envisaged history ending in the arms of a Kantian federated Europe; but it turned out to be only what we now know as the EU, finally relieved of the UK. And the series of judicial coups that marked the development of the EU, confirmed that its democratic deficit was more the consequence, maybe even the aim, of policy rather than some unfortunate side- effect.[8] Francis Fukuyama, at the end of the Cold War imagined it ending in a neo-liberal capitalist paradise, finally relieved of political conflict.[9] At least, after the latest attempt at world domination by the USA (which we might date to 1991), after the financial crisis of 2008, the Pandemic of 2019 –, and the anti-Enlightenment of the Internet age, no-one, apart from all the evangelicals who set off like commuters for their daily incandescence, is going to announce the end of history in any foreseeable future.

Perhaps we can again take direction from the Old Right. Carl Schmitt, claimed that, since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1813, the USA has been caught up in a dialectic of interventionism and isolationism.[10] Right now, with the end of the Trump presidency, perhaps an isolationist phase has set in; in a tectonic shift, the manic right has begun to be consumed in its own negation. With the 2021 invasion of the Capitol perhaps the USA, weary of invading everywhere else, has decided, to the world’s relief, finally to invade itself.

 

Seamus Deane is Professor of Modern History and American Literature at University College, Dublin. He has published two books of poems, Gradual Wars and Rumours.

 

[1] Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum trans. and annotated by G.L.Ulmen (New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2006), 279, 296-99. See the recent plea for a return to a truly liberal foreign policy in the USA: David C. Hendrickson, Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 161-210, 216-17. But the endless whitewashing of the ‘new international order’, including the UN, as a juridical operation that began with the Kellogg-Briand pact continues apace. See Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (New York: Simon and Schuster,2017).

[2] See Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 655-58.

[3] Tony Wood, ‘Russia Vanishes’, London Review of Books (6 December, 2012), 39-41. Adamson, David M. and Julie DaVanzo, Russia’s Demographic ‘Crisis’: How Real Is It?. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997. https://www.rand.org/pubs/issue_papers/IP162.html.

‘Today Russia is experiencing rapid population aging that will accelerate in the next two decades. The patterns and trends of population growth and aging in Russia have been strongly affected by such catastrophic events as the two world wars, the civil war, and famines. These catastrophes have distorted the population age-sex structure. For example, due to huge losses during the World War II, Russia has the lowest male-to-female ratio in the world, especially among the elderly. The irregularities of the age-sex pyramid will have an impact on the rate of population growth and aging for several decades.’ 

[4] Schmitt, Political Theology: Four chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 2004,[1922]), 62. In his polemical account of the conservative thought of Donoso Cortés, he says that for Cortés, ‘Liberalism…existed…only in that short interim period in which it was possible to answer the question “Christ or Barabbas?” with a proposal to adjourn or appoint a commission of investigation.’

[5] See my  ‘Burke in the United States’ in The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke ed. David Dwan and Christopher J. Insole  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 221-32.

[6] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1953). The opening pages in particular of this work show Strauss’s strong affinity with Schmitt; For example, pp.5-6:  ‘genuine choice is nothing but resolute or deadly serious decision. [It] is akin to intolerance rather than to tolerance. Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance…but in itself it is a seminary of intolerance.’

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997)

[8] On Alexandre Kojève’s aide-mémoire The Latin Empire: Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy’, see Thomas Meaney, ‘Fancies and Fears of a Latin Europe’, New Left Review, 107, (Sept/Oct 2017), 117-30. See Perry Anderson, ‘The European Coup’, London Review of Books (17 December, 2020), 9-23.

[9] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[10] Schmitt, Nomos of the Earth, 253-55.

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