Existential threats and other difficulties

By Lorenzo

Young man, there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.

So Adam Smith responded to a correspondent who feared that a successful revolt by the American colonies would ruin Britain.  Looking back, Adam Smith was right and the fearful young man was wrong. Indeed, Britain proceeded to gain and give up a great empire, and still failed to be ruined.

If there is a great deal of ruin in a nation, how much is there in an entire civilisation?

A ravaged century

In the course of the C20th, Western civilisation faced two existential threats. The attempted conquest of the heartland of Western civilisation by Nazi Germany and the nuclear stand-off with the Leninist Soviet Empire.

Both imperial movements (Nazism and Leninism) were products of Western civilisation but both sought to take it in a direction that would have utterly changed it. As failed projects of transformation, they cost tens of millions of lives. If they had succeeded, they would have taken millions more.

Western civilisation had become so dominant, that only manifestations of itself could truly threaten it. The necessary combination of technology, motivating ideas and social power could only come from itself.

Not a bad prediction for a 1970 book.

A 1970 book: only 7 years off.

As it turned out, both existential threats were defeated. The Anglosphere remained out of reach and was far more pervaded by technology than Germany while Stalin managed the necessary ruthless organisational pragmatism to (just) stave off the Nazi assault and use the Anglosphere’s technological power. (Anglo-American aid made a huge contribution to the Soviet war effort–particularly in logistical support–while the bombing offensive kept the Luftwaffe and tens of thousands of 88m guns in Germany rather than at the Eastern front.)

The Anglosphere + Japan + liberated Western Europe were also far more pervaded by technology than the Soviet Union. (“Upper Volta with rockets” as Henry Kissinger memorably described it.) While the motivating ideas of the latter turned out to have less power the longer the Soviet Union lasted. The combination of demographic, technological and economic superiority led to Western victory. Something as simple as adding Stingers (and other support) to the Muslim willingness to fight, die and fund the struggle in Afghanistan was enough to bleed the weakening Soviet Union so that its leadership tried new (and ultimately self-destructive) reform strategies. (The failure of Soviet reform did provide a useful roadmap for the Beijing regime, however.)

A quiet time

Setting aside environmental concerns, we live in an period with a distinct lack of existential threats. Neither Islam nor China cut it as existential threats.

China because its concerns are still largely regional, its economic power and technological development is very uneven and because it is so good at driving its neighbours into the arms of the Americans. Moreover, historically, an economically strong China has tended to be a stabilising, rather than de-stabilising, factor in Eurasian and later world affairs.

As for Islam, the motivating ideas are there but everything else is lacking. Its technology is completely derivative, its economic development is extremely uneven, it is facing an even sharper collapse in fertility rates than Europe, its states are poor at mobilising their populations and it is riven with internal disputes. Comparing the current relative states of Western civilisation and Islam to the situation at, say, the Battle of Tours (732) or the first Siege of Vienna (1529), is to see the difference between serious threat and violent annoyance.

Battle of Tours

Battle of Tours, 732

Even in 1529, any serious chance of Islamic triumph had passed; the attempts by Portugal and by Castile to outflank Islam had already been a stunning success–the siege of Vienna was 20 years after the Portugese won a crushing naval victory over Muslim naval power in the Indian Ocean. Christianity was already on the way to becoming the largest world religion.  A position its current advances in Africa and Asia mean it has little chance of losing.

There is nothing in contemporary Islam to compare with the Wehrmacht or the Soviet Armed Forces. Even the worst case scenarios in Afghanistan are not going to be a disaster to equal, say, the 1842 retreat from Kabul. The divided Muslim minorities in the West hardly constitute a “fifth column” equivalent to the Communist International and later manifestations. Nor is there any serious equivalent of the “Better Hitler than Blum” sentiments.

Treating Islam in general, or the jihadis in particular, as some sort of existential threat to Western civilisation is not to parade your historical understanding, but the lack of it.

There is a certain mentality which is wildly over-inclined to see existential threats. Thus, the mentality that could see the small Jewish minority as an existential threat to Western civilisation is the mentality that can see the queer minority as an existential threat to Western civilisation.

In contradiction of the mentality that sees the repression of various groups–the denial of equal protection of the law–as a necessary part of Western civilisation, it turns out that the oppression of nobody is a necessary part of Western civilisation. Good for Western civilisation.

Certain not-so-local difficulties

Which does not mean the jihadis are not a genuine problem. If they ever get hold of nuclear weapons (big if), they will use them. The US reacted to the destruction of two buildings by “taking out” two countries. Plus Gitmo and the Patriot Act. The consequences of a successful act of nuclear terrorism on US soil are likely to be a great deal more dramatic–they are an angry and vengeful people. As the Empire of Japan discovered.

It is one to thing to understand the jihadis are not an existential threat, it is quite another not to understand that Islam is a separate civilisation, with its own historical dynamics. Jihadis don’t slaughter Muslim boys in their dorm rooms, or bomb Shi’a religious events or target Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority because of Western policy or the existence of Israel. The jihadis are a response to the interaction of the premises of Islam and the patterns of modernity.

Indeed, since the jihadis are the modern manifestation of a recurring pattern that goes back to the origins of Islam, they are a response to the interaction of the premises of Islam with the patterns of life. Clearly, not the only response, but a recurring response. One that involves a sense of anxious entitlement; an entitlement to kill and a willingness to die to seek final resolution off all anxiety.

Ghazis in the middle of Europe.

Ghazis in the middle of Europe, c.1650.

Murder has to be dealt with, and patterned mass murder needs a response to the pattern. But not a response which wildly overstates the level of threat. Nor one which believes that, somehow, if the West just gets its policy “right”, people will stop being motivated to be jihadis.

Islam generates ghazis, it always has. Jihadis are the ghazis of a world of open borders and fluid populations. Though they lack most of the economic incentives of past ghazis, who were raiders as well as holy warriors.

Breaking up local jihadi networks, improving integration of local Muslims (which does not mean alienating welfare idleness or treating them as if their Muslim identity is primary) into the wider society, disrupting global jihadi networks; these are things worth doing. The level at which jihadis are generated will fluctuate according to wider patterns in Islam and its interaction with other civilisations. But our ability to affect the dynamics of Islam as a religion or as a civilisation are limited. However satisfying it might be to think we have such power.


  1. John H.
    Posted December 7, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    There is an existential threat here in Qld. The Premier Newman is on record as saying that the separation of powers is “more a US thing”. Recent legislation by this government constitutes a real threat to our liberty and Natural Justice.

  2. Posted December 10, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I take it you are being ironic?

  3. John H.
    Posted December 10, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    The Qld govt has introduced legislation which deems any individual which belongs to certain bikie gangs to be criminals.
    If you are in Qld and do not produce photo identification the police can detain you, take you to the police station, and hold you there until such time as your identify is confirmed. This applies to anyone, not just bikies.
    If I sit down have a beer with a few bikies of said clubs I can be investigated.
    Police on the Gold Coast are parking outside businesses own by bikies and staying there, obviously to intimidate customers.

  4. derrida derider
    Posted December 11, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    JH, Campbell Newman’s bikie stuff is indeed mendaciously populist, oppressive, unjust, ineffective and certain – given the historic tendencies of Queensland police – to end in scandal. But the bit about “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation” applies – do keep a sense of proportion..

  5. John H.
    Posted December 11, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I live in Qld Derrida so for all intents and purposes this is my nation. That we see governments so readily trampling on fundamental concepts of our legal system is cause enough to demand action. If we tolerate State govts doing this we are being foolish. For us here in Qld it is a very serious threat. My sense of proportion is just fine thank you, anything that threatens my liberty to walk down a street or have a chat with an individual is an issue I must perceive in the most serious terms. First them came for … . (Niemoller).

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