Every day is the end of history, just as it’s the first day of the rest of your life. All that we know from the past is being fulfilled; all the past can tell us is being revealed--until tomorrow’s new revelations and new fulfillments. There is nonetheless something more apocalyptic than usual about a moment in history when a believer anxious to secure the return of the Hidden Imam is the leader of a large country close to obtaining nuclear weapons. I submit that we should not view Ahmadinejad’s millenarianism as the mere product of personal, national, even pan-Islamic pathology, but as a sign of his role in a historically unique set of circumstances that I shall call, in the immortal words of the Internationale, the Final Conflict.
In that historic battle-song, the two combatants were the Capitalist and the Proletarian, but after a century or so of indecisive skirmishes, the combat was called off when the Proletarian decided he preferred the role of Consumer. Today’s opponents include the previous victor by default, who can now claim to represent all of Modernity--technologically advanced market society with its corollaries of high living standards, long life expectancy, continuing practical and theoretical research and innovation, and so on. His new "revolutionary" opponent no longer looks toward the future but to the past; he represents Tradition, the way things were when human relations were controlled by ritual or "Maussian" exchange rather than market transactions. During the old Capitalist-Proletarian battle, the world of Tradition, referred to as the Third World or the developing countries, stood on the sidelines, although they were expected to sympathize with the Proletarian; today it is this world’s rage that drives the conflict.
The United States and to a lesser extent its allies and rivals in the industrialized world are the champions of Modernity; the champions of Tradition are the various factions of radical Islam. Whether the radicals actually "represent" Islam, let alone the entire premodern world, is really a moot point, since no rival forces from this world have arisen to challenge either its ideology or its tactics.
The Final nature of the Conflict reflects not only the apocalyptic nature of nuclear weapons but the danger posed by the modern world that created these weapons to the very existence of traditional society. Those who reject Huntington’s notorious "clash of civilizations" hypothesis like to point out that save for a few marginal areas, traditional society as it existed through the Middle Ages no longer survives in anything like its pure form; there is but one world, and it is that of modernity. But that is precisely the problem. The Proletariat never really existed either, but that did not prevent a series of Communist revolutions, some of which are still in power. Many "developing" nations and societies within nations are unable to compete in the global marketplace, and neither can nor will abandon the ritual exchange system that still in large measure sustains them. In an increasingly common and troubling phenomenon, after being brought up in a modern society or in an advanced social class of a modernizing one, young men whose cultural origins in traditional societies may be two generations distant revert to the customs of their ancestors as a mark of identity in mimetic opposition to modernity. These are the suicidal fanatics who have carried out the bulk of the recent terror attacks in the West, from 9/11 to the recently thwarted transatlantic airline bombings. Their identification with Tradition under threat affords them a victimary identity that focuses their anti-modern resentment.
All societies generate resentment, but modernity characteristically recycles the energy of resentment into the free market rather than discharging it in a preestablished system of ritual exchanges. Thus everyone in market society has a good deal of free-floating resentment, and various counter-social institutions such as criminal gangs are sustained by it. But market society’s global success also creates an opening for a rival global system that can be opposed to the modern world as a whole. Radical Islam is well adapted to providing a unifying ideology for resentment against modernity. The Islamist dream of restoring the caliphate on a world scale is little more than an abstraction, but it can credibly refer to the historically successful premodern social model built upon the resentment of ancient civilization by the Arab tribes that were Mohammed’s first followers.
The Proletarian was eventually co-opted, but he had always operated entirely within the modern exchange system. The partisans of Tradition too are part of this system, but their allegiance to a premodern ideal allows them to remain indifferent to its blandishments even as they participate in it; the 9/11 crowd could attend a strip club one day and blow themselves up for Islam the next. Nor should we underestimate the importance of the still largely traditional societies of the Middle East and South Asia in giving living credibility to the Islamic ideal. Not long ago the Taliban reigned over a nation state, and for a quarter-century Iran has combined Sharia with partial participation in the global economy, all the while working for the destruction of the West and the reign of the Mahdi. The latter may be dismissed as a religious fantasy, but "the International Soviet shall be the human race" is not much closer to reality. Beginning with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and leading up to the high point (so far) of 9/11, the Islamists have been waging an aggressive war that they increasingly feel they can win.
I have referred on more than one occasion to Europe’s demographic deficit, which Mark Steyn has insistently brought to our attention. While many European ethnic groups have fertility rates far below replacement level and, absent a national arousal that shows few signs of materializing, are on the way to rapid extinction, the Muslim population of Europe is increasing rapidly through both immigration and reproduction. As a bonus, Islam’s progress toward reconquering Europe has revealed the fecklessness of most European societies in defending their own values. (In this respect, France, whatever its other failings, continues to manifest more national self-confidence than most of its neighbors, as well as maintaining a higher birth rate even among its European stock.) But there is a broader context for these demographic observations. The world’s fertility levels are dropping. The Malthusian apocalypse of overpopulation that White Guilt predicted with such confidence a generation ago (see Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb) is no longer a threat; world population is leveling off, and not only in industrialized countries. The large Asian nations are both growing in prosperity and declining in birth rate. As a result of its draconian one-child policy, China will be passed by India in population, but the same trends are present there.
Thus if the representatives of Tradition are to roll back Modernity, it will not be in the name of the ever-more-numerous Third World masses. The Islamists are disposed to act now rather than later on the strength of their current momentum in Europe and the renewed promise of the Iranian revolution. If Iran gets the bomb, the time will be ripe for a decisive showdown with the West. Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic pronouncements about the return of the Hidden Imam and the destruction of Israel and even the United States must be understood in this context.
The coexistence of traditional and modern societies has been a problem ever since modernity began. Once it became clear that European market society had outstripped its premodern rivals, this coexistence took the form of conquest and colonization. One might have thought that the interaction between modern and traditional society would end with the simple absorption of the latter by the former, so that future conflicts would oppose different varieties of modernity. This was indeed implied by the Final Conflict model that lasted through the end of the Cold War, although the socioeconomic evolution of the traditional world, despite the optimistic term developing, was anything but encouraging. But the collapse of the artificial Capitalist-Communist equilibrium made it clear that most "developing" countries that had chosen the Soviet model, as well as quite a few that had chosen ours, were far from having made the transition to a modern economy. This created among these still-traditional societies a reservoir of resentful disappointment that lacked only a champion to challenge the modern "West" on their behalf.
Radical Islam’s willingness and ability to play this role depended crucially on an additional set of contingencies. The wealth of the Islamic Middle East, not to speak of Venezuela and more recently Russia, is not a reward for economic dynamism or creativity. These privileged traditional societies, unable to produce anything technologically advanced on their own, have been able to purchase technology (most crucially, armaments) and finance everything from armies to madrasas to suicide bombers with money derived from a substance that only modern technology can extract and only modern technology can put to use. This fortuitous advantage has been the catalyst for the reemergence of Islam, however "moderate" the majority of its believers may be, as the world-historical vehicle of traditional society’s resentment of the modern market system. The annual pan-Islamic conference, which brings together representatives of all of Islam, regularly hears anti-Western and antisemitic addresses, most recently an apocalyptic rant by Ahmadinejad himself, without a single "moderate" publicly manifesting an adverse reaction. And the political elite that applauds these diatribes is doubtless well behind the Islamic masses in anti-Western and antisemitic feelings.
We all know resentment in our personal lives, but it is difficult for us to imagine the resentful rage that can be aroused in a traditional society held together by local, ritualized relationships--and containing a large population of underemployed young men--toward a vastly more successful modern society that threatens it by its very frivolity. The quasi-ritual hatred of the American Left for George Bush may best be understood as a sympathetic reaction to this rage, in the same way that White Guilt in general is a sympathetic reaction to the anti-modern resentment for which radical Islam is now the spokesman. The romance of Islamic resistance that coalesced around the Palestinians and that is currently echoed in the coverage of Hezbollah’s "resistance" to Israel is based on an updated myth of the noble savage that showers contempt on advanced market society while lionizing terrorist groups whose very lack of economic productivity is a proof of virtue.
In the sense that history ends every day, the Final Conflict is already the end of history. But any Final Conflict in the nuclear age threatens to end history for good, or at least to set it back a few centuries. Yet the reflexive "War is not the answer" is even less the answer. I believe it was Engels who thought the killing power of the machine gun would make future wars increasingly unlikely. Ever since the emergence of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century, thinkers have been predicting that future wars between nations would take place exclusively on the battlefield of commerce, and each time they have been proven wrong.
The knowledge that history is a series of Final Conflicts is not a valid excuse for neglecting the Final Conflict we have been saddled with, and certainly not for thinking that we can avoid it by withdrawing from it or empathizing with our opponents. This approach was tried in the 1930s and did not meet with great success. If the stark fact of our enemies’ implacable hatred must be put in "religious" terms for us to understand it, then the jihadis have done us all a favor. We are modern and they are not; in a globally connected world, no meaningful compromise between past and present is possible. Our only viable option is to continue fighting until we have won the battle. Every "cease-fire" is a victory for the enemy. We have vastly more strength, but we need the will to use it.
Assuming that we persevere, our victory will put an end to the Final Conflict between Modernity and Tradition that has been with us off and on since the Renaissance. The apocalypse will have been deferred, but surely not for the last time. In times of peace we tend to forget that ever since the originary event, the primary concern of human culture is the deferral of violence.
If you enjoyed this column, subscribe to the GAlist and you'll receive updates about our on-line journal Anthropoetics and get the Chronicles of Love and Resentment regularly by email.
Chronicles home page | Return to Anthropoetics home page | Chronicles Feedback
Gans / firstname.lastname@example.org