Foucault famously maintained that power and knowledge form an integral structure whose function is to produce compliant, docile subjects. Science is not a neutral investigation of facts and forces but a partisan in the struggle to produce people who demand only what the established society can provide. Social institutions are the materialised form of power through which this knowledge is disseminated. However influential and illuminating the idea of power/knowledge complexes has been to the explanation of social reproduction, his account is one-sided. There are indeed complexes of power/knowledge, but power is also always integrated with structures of self-delusion that blind those in power, and those who support them, to the real implications of their actions.
Let us take the on-going horror show (there seems no better word to describe it) across the Middle East and North Africa as an example. The full historical explanation of the greatest social disaster since the Second World War would have to go back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, but let us confine ourselves to the more proximate causes of the current struggles in the late Cold War. To orient ourselves, let us begin with then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s now (in)famous claim that America was the “indispensable nation.” This claim is a perfect example of the power/self-delusion complex that the ruling value system requires to convince its executors of the justice of the deadly implications of their policies.
Speaking on the Today Show in 1998 about the possible need for a ground invasion of Iraq to ensure that UN weapons inspectors had access to suspected nuclear and chemical weapons sites, she said:
“Let me say that we are doing everything possible so that American men and women in uniform do not have to go out there again. It is the threat of the use of force and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us. I know that the American men and women in uniform are always prepared to sacrifice for freedom, democracy and the American way of life.”
The First Gulf War, recall, had removed the Iraqi army from Kuwait, but did not topple Hussein. It did, however, unleash the forces that have culminated today in the near complete destruction of Iraqi society. All told, the sanctions regime, the First Gulf War, and the ten years of intermittent bombing and more sanctions killed an estimated one million people. The Second Gulf War and ensuing civil war have killed, to date, over 100 000 people. Not only has no American or American ally been tried for a war crime (proving that faith in international law is a paradigm case of the power/self-delusion complex), no one in a position of power in the West has learned the obvious lesson– attempts to remake ancient societies from the outside, to turn millions of lives into instruments of imperialist policy, destroys established social stability without creating the forces needed to reconstitute stability on a higher level of social development, social peace, and democratic self-organization.
With 25 years of evidence now available for public scrutiny, no one can any longer deny that American policy in the MIddle East in the quarter century from 1990-2015 has been an absolute failure, on any metric one chooses. One can choose the ideological metrics of the Americans themselves– the Middle East is not democratic and is more violent and hostile to American interests than ever. Or one can choose the life-value metrics that alone should decide the value of any political policy. On every count: public health care, social stability, education, the rights of women, democratic self-governance, control over natural resources and social wealth and their use for supporting social life-development systems, the situation today is worse everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa touched by the two Gulf Wars and then the “War on Terror.” In every theatre in which it has been fought, this war on the life-conditions of Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa has brought nothing but death and destruction of the social life fabric. Not a single country invaded for the sake of ‘democracy’ is on any trajectory toward democratic peace in any foreseeable time frame.
On the contrary, the situation continues to get worse. With the re-election of Netanyahu in Israel and the Saudi bombing (and possible ground invasion) of Yemen, the forces of anti-human repression are in the ascendant. The failure of the Arab Spring to lead to the democratic transformation of the Arab world (largely due to American and Saudi intervention) has once again allowed the anti-imperialist struggle to be taken up by the most reactionary and brutal religio-political movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia.
We have seen this story play out before. More than thirty years before ISIS, the Iranian people rebelled against the US-backed Shah in 1979. The ensuing revolution brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, but what has been largely forgotten is that there was a struggle within the revolutionary movement between a secular-left workers’ movement and the ultimately victorious Islamists (the silenced history is brilliantly told in Assef Bayat’s Workers and Revolution in Iran, Zed Books, 1987).
It is a common refrain amongst even progressive commentators in the West that the Arab world lacks the internal democratic-scientific-secular impetus towards social development that drove (in their view) the history of contemporary liberal-democratic-capitalism. What they ignore is both the role of imperialist plunder in the development of Western society, and the role the West played in undermining the emergence of analogous developmental forces in the Arab world during the Cold War. From the end of the Second World War until the end of the 1960’s, there was a secular left-nationalist movement in the Middle East that managed to cross the sectarian divides that are the front lines of the shockingly violent civil wars aging across the region today. What is happening today is not the result of “backward” peoples replaying ancient grievances; it is the continuation of the struggle against Western imperialism, in the absence of secular principles and movements that can connect across ethnic and religious divisions.
Those principles have enjoyed success in the region; however, they were demonized and attacked during the Cold War, destroyed by American proxies, including the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, and various mujahadeen groups in Afghanistan, elements of which went on to form Al Qaeda and the Taliban. .
These are the three most important depth historical causes of the current catastrophe. In 1949 Mohammed Mossadeq formed the National Front Party; in 1951 he was appointed Prime Minister. When his plans to nationalize the oil resources of Iran alarmed Britain and the United States, the MI6 and the CIA engineered a 1953 coup, which removed Mossadeq and left the Shah in power, whose brutality ignited the 1979 Revolution.
The ascension to power of Saddam Hussein takes a similar trajectory to that of the Shah. His coup was supported by the US because he was willing to target and liquidate left-wing members of the military who advocated the nationalization of Iraq’s oil wealth. The story of Afghanistan is better known. The CIA backed any group (including Osama bin Laden) willing to fight the Soviets and their Afghan proxies. The end result of that strategy was, as Chalmers Johsnon put it, “blowback” in the form of the 9/11 attacks.
Without a vital left current, Islamic forces of varying ideological stripes have filled the void with sectarianism rather than solidarity, military and paramilitary life destruction rather than political and social life-development. While it might seem preposterous to hope for the development of indigenous left-secular political movements capable of confronting both Western imperialism and Arab ruling classes (including their religious-ideological support systems), it is clear that the development of some such movement–crossing Sunni-Shi’a and national divides–is the only hope for the region. A short four years ago, just such a movement was emerging as millions of mostly poor youth rose up against the legacy of Cold War autocracy and empty religious rhetoric. In that crucible the indispensable nation made its choice– for the geriatric generals of Egypt, for murderous instability everywhere else, deluding itself and its embarrassing allies like Stephen Harper that killing just a few more of the wrong sort of people would solve the problem that more than a million dead Arab bodies has failed to solve. This mountain of bodies is the material reality of the so-called “moral clarity” which Harper believes attaches to his Middle East policy.
Until this power/self-delusion complex is deconstructed and the policies of the indispensable nation dispensed with, the people of the Middle east will enjoy no respite for the evils our “civilization” rains upon them.