The Collapse of Civilization

It’s not possible to talk deeply about the US invasion of Iraq without talking about perception, entitlement, and the end of civilisation. On September 11, 2006, George W Bush said, of the US invasion of Iraq and more broadly what he calls the “War on Terror,” that, “In truth, it is a struggle for civilisation.”

Throughout that speech, as he has done throughout the past several years, he repeatedly framed his invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq as defensive wars.

There’s a sense, of course, in which Bush is lying. And there’s a sense in which these sorts of lies aren’t uncommon: much of politics and history consists of these lies. As Robert Jay Lifton, probably the world’s foremost authority on the psychology of genocide, has made clear, before you can commit any mass atrocity, you must convince others and especially yourself that what you’re doing is not an atrocity, but instead beneficial. So Hitler was not, from his own perspective, killing Jews and committing genocide; he was purifying the Aryan “race”. Americans weren’t killing American Indians and committing genocide; they were fulfilling their Manifest Destiny. EuroAmericans weren’t enslaving Africans and committing genocide; they were helping the Africans: slavery, as one 1830’s philosopher put it, “has done more to elevate a degraded race in the scale of humanity; to tame the savage; to civilise the barbarous; to soften the ferocious; to enlighten the ignorant, and to spread the blessings of Christianity among the heathen, than all the missionaries that philanthropy and religion have ever sent forth.”

Today, industrialised nations don’t exploit colonies, they “help Third World Nations develop.” So, of course, Bush can’t just come out and say he’s ordering mass torture of suspects (instead, he’s “protecting our security”) or that he invaded Iraq to steal oil: even Hitler said his invasion of Poland was defensive and that Poland
attacked first.

This works on a personal level, too. Every jerkish action I’ve ever committed I’ve had fully rationalised beforehand, no matter how much I’m able to later see how awful I may have been. Our capacity for self-delusion is extraordinary.

But it’s not necessarily all self-delusion. The psychiatrist RD Laing, in The Politics of Experience, made the observation that people behave according to how they experience the world. There’s a great line by a Canadian lumberman: “When I look at trees I see dollar bills.” If when you look at trees, you see dollar bills, you’ll treat them one way. If when you look at trees, you see trees, you’ll treat them another. If when you look at this particular tree, you see this particular tree, you’ll treat it differently still. Likewise, if when Bush looks at Iraqis, he sees terrorists standing in the way of his version of freedom and democracy — or simply in the way of his access to oil — he’ll treat them as he has.

And he probably does perceive them this way. Entitlement does strange things to perception. It seems to me that entitlement is key to nearly all atrocity, and that any threat to perceived entitlement provokes the sort of hatred Bush has become known for. Europeans felt they were (and are) entitled to the land of North and South America, indeed the world. The British certainly felt they were entitled to India and Indians. Slave-owners felt and feel they’re entitled to the labour (and the lives) of their slaves. Americans act as though we’re entitled to consume the majority of the world’s resources, and to change the world’s climate. Industrialised humans act like we’re entitled to anything we want on this planet.

So long as this sense of entitlement remains invisible to those reaping its benefits — so long as this entitlement isn’t seen as such but rather is described as “economics,” or “religion,” or “tradition,” or simply “the way things are,” and most especially so long as those to be exploited don’t actively resist — exploiters don’t have to think much about those they’re stealing from. But let the rationalisations begin to fall away, or more to the point, let their victims begin to fight back, and suddenly we see the truth of Nietzsche’s line: “One does not hate so long as one despises.” Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remain underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force — and hatred — waits in the wings, ready to explode. As we see.

The self-perception of those who run the US is that it’s entitled to whatever resources it needs, wherever it may find them. So long as everyone goes along with this — so long as there isn’t too much trouble in the colonies; so long as the US is allowed to steal everyone else’s resources (importation is the preferred term in polite circles) — there’s no need for aggressive rhetoric, and the troops (there must always be troops) can keep their guns holstered. But threaten their access to oil (their oil, from their perspective) no matter whose land it may be under) and watch the depleted uranium fireworks begin.

This brings us back to Bush’s comment, that this is a struggle for civilisation, and to the sense in which he wasn’t lying, even to himself. All empires — indeed all civilisations — are and must be based on the ever-increasing forced importation of resources from ever-expanding regions of increasingly-exploited countrysides. The British empire was based on the exploitation of the colonies as was the Dutch empire as surely as is the American empire. German Reichskanzler Paul von Hindenberg described the relationship perfectly: “Without colonies no security regarding the acquisition of raw materials, without raw materials no industry, without industry no adequate standard of living and wealth. Therefore, Germans, do we need colonies.” Of course someone already lives in the colonies, but that evidently is not of any importance.

The Age of Empire — the age of growth — has reached its endgame. Native forests have been destroyed, rivers dammed and murdered; 90 per cent of the large fish in the oceans are gone; oil extraction has either peaked or will peak very soon. The world is dying. Or rather being killed.

I don’t believe Bush is quite so stupid as he often seems. Even he — or at least his advisors — must recognise that a system based on perpetual growth and the perpetual importation of resources cannot survive on a finite planet. Even he, or his advisors, must recognise that any way of living based on nonrenewable resources such as oil cannot last. In this sense when Bush says the invasion of Iraq “is a struggle for civilisation,” he is for once telling the truth: in a world of dwindling resources, the American Empire needs access to this oil. Because they perceive themselves entitled to maintain their lifestyle no matter what the cost to others and to the earth — never forget Dick Cheney’s statement that the American way of life is not negotiable. And because this entitlement will increasingly be threatened not only by those who do not wish their oil or other resources stolen but also by the depletion of resource after crucial resource, we can all expect repeated episodes of the sort of hatred and mass violence perpetrated by Bush and his kind, as the American Empire tries increasingly desperately to maintain something which can no longer be maintained.

Originally published in Hindustan Times

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