The West in the Middle East
and Perestroika in the WestJanuary 2007
Around 1990 I did a series of talks called 'Perestroika in the West'. Perestroika (restructuring), with glasnost (openness or transparency) were concepts introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s to give philosophical underpinning to the reforms he was introducing at the time in USSR. My point in 1990 was that Gorbachev was announcing something not just for USSR but for the whole world. The global geometry did indeed change once the Cold War ended, though not as much as might have been.
One reason for this was denial in the West. To justify its massive investment in the Cold War, and the way it used the Cold War as a means of perpetrating Western hegemony over much of the world, and to reinforce its former projection on USSR as a malign global influence, the West claimed victory as it watched USSR scale itself back and eventually collapse. By doing this it justified the West's standpoint, blocked questioning of its own position and covered up its own inadequacies.
Psychologically this is a suppression technique which commits truths to the lurking realm of the unconscious - other such techniques are addiction and over-consumption, projection (soon to be applied to Muslims), elaborated control agendas, deflection through entertainment and glitz, and others - keeping everyone looking away from the core issues. Such suppression always comes back to haunt us.
The rule of the nomenklatura
At the time I predicted that the West would unconsciously inherit many of the ills of the late Soviet Union, as a result of this denial. Lo behold, we see nowadays the prevalence of the Western nomenklatura (its class of technocrats, experts, CEOs, investors and lawyers), of top-down regulation and micro-management, systemic inefficiencies and waste, military adventurism and many other characteristics which once we identified with the Russians. 'You become what you hate'.
The period around 1990 constituted a window of opportunity for global reform in international relations and, not only this, but a reform of capitalism and the Western system. This would be driven not by benign, idealistic intent, but by realistic calculations and strategic forethought. The West itself was due for restructuring but, during the 1990s, it overrode this need by engaging in a combination of technological change, amphetamine economics and talking up almost to cult proportions the virtues of the Western project and its get-rich-quick opportunities. The window of hope of around 1990 was shut by the Gulf War of 1991, which reasserted superpower politics in the new, post-Cold War period.
I touched on this subject of lost opportunities in a recent article on this blog called Hope I Die Before I Get Old, about 'extremist' Muslim social movements - Hezbollah and Hamas being the best-known. I likened many of the dynamics of these movements to those of the popular movements of the 1960s in the West, of which I had been a part. The 1960s represented a dawning from within Western society of a new vision and paradigm. It was based on new principles and priorities of social and ecological change, human rights, re-proportioned materialism, a new creativity and a psycho-spiritual awakening.
During the 1970s these were largely overridden and, during the 1980s, diverted into a new consumptive modernisation binge, with the overall effect of developing ever deeper and more sophisticated levels of cultural denial. It dangled the possibilities of freedom, democracy and prosperity before the world while in fact, for many in the non-Western 'rest of the world', the result was too often the opposite - only some became beneficiaries.
By 1990, Western vested interests, widening their embrace by making many ordinary people property-owning stakeholders in the status quo, were not about to yield to an altruistic epiphany and drop the Western perpetual-growth project, however much the system was riddled with systemic problems. Instead, they resorted to a pattern of steamrollering and out-running commonsense, foresight and realism, by offering ever-expanding inducements and sanctions to keep the West on track and the rest in place. New ideas and reform movements were headed off worldwide by branding them negative and threatening. Muslims have suffered this most in recent times.
Had it happened, perestroika in the West would not have been an import from the ailing USSR. It would have arisen from within the West, where many answers were already part-developed, largely outside the corridors of power in the NGO sector and the 'movement for change'. The troubles of the West had been pointed out in the 1960s by professors, pop musicians and protesters, many of whom came from relatively educated, not necessarily deprived, backgrounds. "Western civilisation? I think it would be a good idea", Gandhi had said - and this disarming statement still holds true.
Today, in 2007, the prospect of radical reformation, perestroika, again begins to rear its head, set in motion mainly by climate change and the 'clash of civilisations', with a constellation of other issues too. We are now in a phase of acknowledgement-with-avoidance. Climatic and environmental threats are now being taken reasonably seriously, though narrowed down to a preoccupation with carbon dioxide and answered with a barrage of quick fixes and superficial solutions. We may retain our lifestyles - we just need to pay some extra taxes, get some new gizmos, set some targets, do some carbon trading and hope we're dead before it gets ugly.
Meanwhile, with Muslims, a stream of answers is trotted out about what needs to happen in the Middle East - anything except listening to them and understanding their needs and perspective. This avoidance phase could last some years until evolving facts finally force the issue - a much more fundamental change. When that happens, we'll probably be offered the option of the threat of chaos or a new globalised order of top-down control to save us from our plight. Neither option will really be what is needed, so deep is the avoidance and so profound the tendency of governments to misjudge and re-package reality.
The war against error
Fundamental, root-and-branch changes are necessary, ultimately down as far as matters of the soul. Yes, it could hurt at first, until a majority of people see things in a new way and come to understand how much simpler things could be than they are now. And yes, I risk being regarded as a crank for suggesting this. A key ingredient is to prioritise collective interest - not just vested interest. 'Collective' doesn't mean only the social dimension, but the complete planetary dimension.
Such a transformation would shift the motivations, priorities and emotional needs of humans in such a way that its problems with over-consumption, social disintegration, ecological damage, cultural intolerance, identity and human purpose might become largely self-adjusting. At present, the world is scared of really facing this possibility and all that it implies. So we engage in elaborate displacement strategies - in the developed world it is called 'stability' (for which, read 'high-level consumption') and elsewhere it is called 'development' (for which read, 'aspiration to high-level consumption').
The questions raised in this article about the West are important since current problems in the Middle East are overshadowed by the priorities of the West. This concerns not just the oil trade, the arms trade or support of Israel, but also Western interventionism and economic hegemony and, behind this, the blocking of new developments and solutions. As I pointed out in Hope I Die Before I Get Old, the Middle East is spawning new movements, albeit imperfect, which could bring a quantum shift in global politics, social affairs and collective moral issues. (The title of that article was an allusion to a song called 'My Generation' by The Who, around 1970.)
The West has for decades been consistently dedicated to blocking these movements, ever since WW2. Currently examples are the financial embargo and arming of Palestine, USA's Iraq and Iran strategies, its bungling in Lebanon, the manipulation of the ruling elites of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and its support of Israel.
Descendancy strikes again
All this said, Western obstructionism is arguably a manifestation of its underlying, gradual decline. Some historians assert that empires are at their most destructive when they are in decline, out of a concealed desperation to plug gaps in the dyke of a river which is overflowing its banks. The up-coming power in this world is not like the Western superpower configuration of the 20th Century: it involves an as yet unshaped architecture of continental-scale interests, and the current historic ascendancy of China, India, South America, with Africa and the Middle East following, are symptoms of this. The West is slipping from being a modernising to a conservative force, as reflected in the demographic contrast between the ageing West and the much younger 'majority world'.
Meanwhile, we live in times of 'asymmetrical warfare' in which a small, tight network of troublemakers or a 'rogue' nation can cause the world's self-appointed guardians - USA and Europe - to expend enormous sums and energies in ultimately unproductive activity, staving off a rising tide. Not only this but, to preserve its own cherished freedoms, the West is gradually limiting them 'for security reasons'. 9/11 sparked the expenditure of multi-billions in a quixotic war against terror. Yet one well-placed bomb can change things far more than democratic elections.
A tight and lean militia such as Hezbollah can checkmate the armed might of Israel. This asymmetry is bad news for the West. It falls into the trap of believing that massive force and economic hegemony will overcome everything, and that reconciliation is unacceptable or anathema. Despite its vast and costly intelligence agencies, this is very unintelligent behaviour. The small guys in the Middle East draw inspiration from precedents such as the mujahedin in 1990s Afghanistan, who drained the USSR of its dwindling resources and hastened its downfall. They're doing it again in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Palestine and, in their own perception, they are simply defending their people.
All this Western effort and expenditure is aimed primarily at stopping not Muslims but perestroika in the West. The West believes it is preserving its interests but, in the longterm, the opposite is true. The West's continued survival demands infrastructural change and, to carry this out without resorting to a new totalitarianism, it involves a major social-psychological change too.
This is not as difficult as it sounds, because Westerners, despite relative freedom and prosperity, are not happy. By comparison to many of the world's peoples, Westerners are too busy for each other, dislocated, tense and rather lost. But it is unacceptable to the status quo. As a result, the West is losing energy by going against itself and, while oil and gas energy-sources can perhaps be replaced by wind, sun and ethanol, loss of vivacity and spark aren't so easily substituted.
Here we return to the strategic and holistic issues first clearly perceived in the 1960s: the West is a house of cards or, as Mao put it, a paper tiger. The Western system stands on a number of 'big ifs', such as market confidence, continued supply of oil and resources, Western military superiority, perpetuation of an unsettled international order, absence of major disasters, the continued complicity of masses of people and the continued capacity of vested interests to hold the reins. If one or several events or agencies knock away a few of the key chocks holding up the whole system, the whole lot risks subsidence or collapse.
Today (2007) USA is increasing its involvement in Iraq for reasons that many sensible people deem to be at best miscalculated, at worst dismaying. But the key issue behind this is the maintenance of the rather dishonest narrative that keeps the West ticking. This is partially public and partially secret - a symptom of the double standards Middle Eastern people talk about. The public picture, in Iraq, is that USA and UK seek to establish peace, democracy and prosperity, while the secret picture is that, by destabilising the Middle East and making it a cauldron of strife and disunity, it is stopped from finding solutions and breakthroughs of its own. How much this is intentional and how much 'the law of unintended consequences' is a matter of debate.
Whether or not you believe that something is going to crack in the system as a whole depends greatly on your disposition toward the Western narrative and your position in it. But this is vexing, because each of us variously knows both sides of the story. The future is disconcertingly unknown, and hard-and-fast forecasting is wisely avoided even by the most informed of analysts and commentators. But possibilities and probabilities are visible. The underlying global agenda is shifting from competing national interests to that of global environmental change. In the 1990s, business interests were the great globalisers, but now it is the environment.
Last Chance Saloon
At risk of labouring my point, I wish to repeat mention of the two massive missed opportunities that the West, with all its thinktanks, professors, expertise and focus groups, has failed to take advantage of. The first was the visionary time of the 1960s, which could have been the start of a forward-thinking period of incremental change lasting from the 1970s onwards. The second was the time of profound change around 1990 and the Fall of the Wall, when many of the initiatives of the 1960s were working through into Western consciousness. Both offered the West an opportunity to undergo a sensible restructuring, clean up its covert agendas and double standards, and face the environmental and other global challenges by starting at the right time.
Restructuring in the West didn't happen, and now we are paying a rising price. We cannot just wring our hands and rue lost opportunities. But we do need to take note of what we in the West already know. And, like the visionaries of the 1960s, who were driven by a homegrown perception while co-opting ideas and methods from other cultures, times and peoples, we might do well to look at the essence of what the 'majority world' is saying and doing today.
That is, to generalise optimistically, the people of the Middle East are pointing at a new umma or community of shared belief and moral behaviour, a new social order; the political movements of Latin America are pointing to a new middle way characterised by greater social justice, fairness and consensus; the Asians are looking at technical and productive innovation which increasingly will knock spots off the West's technical predominance and prove applicable to far wider swathes of people than we have seen; and the Africans are likely one day to show humanity new elements of balance, proportion and integrity, born of the extremes they experienced in the 20th Century and offering what could be a key to the resolution of all of the above.
These assertions might sound sweeping and ridiculous, but let me remind you: at the beginning of the 'renaissance' and 'enlightenment' of Europe starting some 500 years ago, no one in their right minds, anywhere in the world, would have guessed that those uncultured, smelly, barbarian Europeans and their successor Americans would come to dominate the world. They did. Something else is now developing. Such is the way that things turn. Twenty-first Century, here we come. We still have an opportunity.