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Arnold Heumakers, “Our Intimate Enemies”

Anonymous Comrade writes:

Here is a quick translation of a three-book review from the Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad of 7 May 2004. The author is Arnold Heumakers, a philosopher. It discusses three books that throw light on the ‘split within western culture.’ NRC-Handelsblad is the newspaper of the Dutch economic and cultural upper strata, with liberal-democratic, neoliberal and anti-populist inclinations (and a good book section). The review itself expresses a rather sophisticated notion of the west as a global entity, with all kinds of internal antagonisms and a ‘peculiar schizophrenia’.

“Our Intimate Enemies”

Arnold Heumakers

Reviewing: Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism. The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. Penguin, 166 p.

Arthur Mitzman, Prometheus Revisited. The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century. University of Massachusetts, 317 p.

Lee Harris, Civilisation and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History. Free Press, 232 p.

The ‘orientalism’ about which the late Edward Said wrote a now classic study, was sure to see its opposite sooner or later: occidentalism. The word was probably used before, but the book to accompany it has only materialised now, written by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. The two concepts are not each others’ complete mirror image. By orientalism Said understood the western fantastic images of the East, often determined by Eurocentrism and racism, but not necessarily negative in character. The oriënt, after all, was often portrayed as an exotic fairy-tale full of lust and magic — associations that today seem to have disappeared from view to a certain extent, partly as a result of occidentalism.

That occidentalism has nothing to remind us of fairy-tales, except that in this case too, reality is different than the image; what it describes is a judgment cast over the West en bloc, or as a whole, which in the eyes of occidentalists has become the embodiment of Evil, a devilish illness that must be violently rooted out. This is no longer serious criticism. Typical of occidentalism, Buruma and Margalit write, is the ‘dehumanising’ character of this portrayal. Those who express criticism still believe that improvement is possible, while evil only invites ruthless eradication.

It is this hated image of the West, that we find with the contemporary muslim terrorists of Al-Qaeda, but in the past a similar occidentalism can be recognised among Japanese kamikaze pilots, Mao’s communists, with the Kampuchean Khmer Rouge or the nineteenth-century Russian slavophiles. All of them are fighting against the West, because they felt threatened by it, harmed in their identity, what of course means that the West was all but alien to them. The terrorists of the attack of September 11 did not come from the desert, but had often spent years living in Europe or the U.S. Their hate was their defense against the threat of infection. Therefore, occidentalism occurs mainly in countries (like Russia and Japan before) straining to copy as much as they can from the west.

The peculiar schizophrenia that may result from this, is hardly at all discussed by Buruma and Margalit. They do show how much the antiwestern reaction has been copied from the west itself. Comparable images of the enemy were long available in German Romanticism and German nationalism which partly emerged from it, which up to and including national-socialism desired to distinguish itself from the ‘West’ associated with France and England. German thinkers and poets like Herder, Fichte, Heidegger and Jünger, it is argued, did not lack a certain following in for example Japan or the Islamic world.

In their book Buruma and Margalit treat some ‘occidentalist’ themes, such as the abhorrence of the big city and of the bourgeois spirit of trade, the mistrust of rationalism and the desire for religious purity. Of course they realise quite well that these themes were not only cherished by Germans, as romanticism and nationalism have not been exclusively German phenomena. What manifests itself through the backdoor, in this ‘occidentalism’, is once again the deep internal division of western civilisation. To that western civilisation belongs not only the ‘western’ tradition of Enlightenment, where Buruma and Margalit appear to feel most at home, but as much its romantic countervoice, even when it doesn’t explicitly turn against ‘the West’.

Buruma and Margalit are not blind to this split; after all, they ascribe a western origin to occidentalism. But the possible consequences of that observation, which are not unimportant for an intended understanding of the phenomenon and for answering the question of what attitude to take against it, they leave undiscussed. In so far as Japanese kamikaze pilots are concerned or Al-Qaeda-terrorists, it doesn’t matter so much: such concrete, physically violent enemies can only be fought in practice. It becomes much more difficult with intimate mental ‘enemies’, who are at the same time dear to ones heart, like Dostoevsky, the great author who is here presented as a Slavophile occidentalist, or the one who inspired the Slavophiles, the German romantic philosopher Schelling, who these days actually enjoys a little more attention, and rightly so, than Buruma and Margalit (out of rejection or ignorance) suggest.

Precisely as a symptom of our western dividedness, occidentalism appears as a reason for a critical self-inquiry, that possibly could also shed a little more than a polemic light on the current muslim terrorism. But this Buruma and Margalit have not ventured to do, and as a result their book has become nothing more and nothing less than an erudite and well-written proposal to supply a certain phenomenon with a catchy label.

How much this cultural split is still with us, is shown by two other recent books in which the terrorism of September 11 plays an important role: Prometheus Revisited. The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century by Arthur Mitzman, emeritus-professor of modern history at the University of Amsterdam, and Civilisation and Its Enemies. The Next Stage of History by the American neoconservative Lee Harris.

Both books attack, as much as is still necessary, the ‘end of history’ that Fukuyama declared in 1989, but that is about the only thing the leftist utopian Mitzman and the right-wing realist Harris have in common. The one embodies, so to speak, the nightmare of the other, and as such they demonstrate — in an unintended fashion — the split in western culture.

Within the confines of Mitzman’s book this split takes a very different form, namely that of the myth of Prometheus. The Greek Titan is used by him as the symbol of western modernity, be it in two appearances: he embodies modern capitalism and its expansion, and at the same time represents the alternative counterforces, which emerged mainly during the Romantic period and have been given a voice in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound of 1819. Against the current neoliberalism Mitzman counterposes the memory of the romantic countervoice, not looking for mastery over nature, but (as the ending of Shelley’s drama demonstrates) for a liberating reconciliation of culture and nature.

Mitzman’s book is a passionate plea not to acquiesce in the apparent triumph of capitalist globalisation. Capitalism may have succeeded in recuperating earlier liberatory movements such as nationalism and socialism, with as a result that today the free consumer is allowed to act as the caricature of Prometheus, but this does not mean there is no other way. The most realistic attitude, Mitzman writes against the ‘Zeitgeist’, is now the ‘utopian imagination’.

The future is blocked off by a ‘double wall’: the threat of ecological catastrophe and socio-economic malaise, expressed in the increasing gap between poor and rich. Both these threats according to Mitzman are more more important than that of terrorism, which is currently getting all the attention. The only way out he sees is a revival of romantic utopianism, the creative, imagination-saturated version of the Promethean myth. The revolt of the 60s of the last century (‘all power to the imagination’) would not have been a swan-song, but in fact a hopeful prefiguration that now has attained a promising follow-up in the world-wide antiglobalisation movement.

Mitzman’s critical vision is an extension of the Frankfurter Schule. Chiefly Herbert Marcuse (and his ‘repressive tolerance’) is judged as being right: only now we are fully living what Marcuse once predicted. He looks for support with the critical psychoanalytic Ernest Schachtel, who puts all emphasis on the ‘allocentric’ perception, proper to artists and poets. It revolves around a redefinition of human nature, in which the emphasis is put on the responsiveness to ‘otherness’, a rupture with that usual opposition between subject and object or between man and nature, for the benefit of a reconciliation in the way of Shelley.

Besides that, Mitzman comes up with a wonderful utopian ‘sketch’ of an alternative future, a global anarchistic paradise of local and regional communities, which have escaped all the downsides of the capitalist rat race. Private property and the market economy must be abolished to realise it — which in itself seems sufficient, even without all the rosy details, to reject this utopia for lack of realism. But Mitzman defends the ‘realism’ of his utopia explicitly, precisely ‘on historical grounds’.

That seems strange, because everything that Mitzman writes about the past affirms the triumph of capitalism. Why should the romantic alternative (the ‘Other Prometheus’) now suddenly work, while before it didn’t? Eventually Mitzman finds refuge in an old-fashioned belief in Progress, including the blessings of new information technology, that may have as much revolutionary consequences as the printing press did before.

Another thing that springs to the fore is the great trust in Europe, against an America that is apparently hopelessly lost. As the ‘first step’ towards his utopian transformation Mitzman sees as the establishment of a ‘Social Europe’, a restoration of the decaying welfare state, which afterwards must serve as an example to the world. In his gripping, but also insanely optimistic and naïve book, Mitzman uses his great historical knowledge to empower an image of the future that is not very plausible, relying on the dividedness of western culture, with the promise of a hidden saviour in that other face of Prometheus.

It is not hard to imagine what his opposite number Lee Harris would think of all this: unworldly idealism! Typically something for ‘intellectuals’, who simply prefer their own ideals to reality.

In Civilisation and Its Enemies Harris prefers to defend the status quo, that is to say: Pax Americana as it is now exerted by the Bush family, including unilateral military action in Iraq, and all its failings and successes. Harris gives us an un-narrow-minded defense of neoliberal capitalism, the same which according to Mitzman is destroying the world, and the corresponding ‘professionalism’ of the businessman.

And where is the division in Harris’s account? It is in the way he tacitly re-writes the principles of American democracy by applying the ideas of Carl Schmitt, who in Buruma and Margalit is one of the sources of inspiration for occidentalism. Strangely Harris doesn’t succeed in mentioning Schmitt once, but his definition of sovereignty as the competence of deciding when normal rules should be suspended is too similar to what Schmitt has to say about it in his Politische Theologie (the sovereign decides about the ‘state of exception’) to be entirely coincidental. Even more strongly that is the case with Harris’ ideas, provoked by September 11, about the return of the ‘enemy’.

The enemy is part of civilisation, Harris argues; as soon as you try to banish violence, someone presents himself who does not obey this rule and challenges you: that is the enemy. According to Harris this began no later than with Romulus killing Remus; Schmitt made Kain’s slaying of Abel the beginning of history, but the principle is the same. Harris’ reproaches to the ‘liberals’ that they have forgotten about the enemy, are also reminiscent of Schmitt, who argues in The Concept of the Political that liberalism is looking in vain for a ‘neutral’ sphere and therefore ignores the unavoidable antagonism. A failure to appreciate a tough, violent reality, says Schmitt, and Harris repeats it after him, using comparable arguments against the unworldly idealism of ‘intellectuals’ like Mitzman.

As the champion of ‘realism’ he does not mention Schmitt, but Hegel, be it a Hegel without an ‘end of history’. From Hegel Harris borrows the aversion to merely abstract ideas, that which he calls the ‘Platonic fallacy’: ideas, according to him, are only valid insofar as they are grounded in concrete historical reality. It is the classic conservative critique of enlightened or unenlightened idealists. With Harris, it goes so far that (calling on Hegel’s infamous dictum that ‘the rational is the real and the real is the rational’) every possibility of critique of the status quo appears to evaporate.

If we should believe Harris that critique is not at all necessary, because American hegemony in practice is a blessing to everyone, so much even that he doesn’t shrink from greeting the special position of the United States on the world stage as ‘the next stage of history’, complete with the dubious ‘neo-sovereignty’ which justifies American intervention in other states if ‘wrong-doings’ are committed. What wrong-doings are these? Harris speaks of ‘ruthlesness’ or in other words the refusal to play the political game according to the rules. That is what, at this moment, islamic terrorists like Al-Qaeda are guilty of, caught, as they are, in a ‘fantasy-ideology’ that no longer serves any rational goal, except the spectacular destruction of the enemy to satisfy the unshakeable feeling of being in the right.

As support for his crass statements Harris, like Mitzman, delves into the past. He sees, for instance, Sparta as the source of freedom of Greece, the first victory over the ‘ruthlesness’ of the enemy, without this destroying one’s own society thanks to ‘team spirit’ and a ‘code of honor’. What started in Sparta has now, through classical Rome, ended up in the United States, that as the ideal society and as global cop in Harris’s portrayal gets unmistakably utopian features. This because the total unselfishness that he ascribes to U.S. action defies all realism. Compared to this example of wishful thinking Mitzman suddenly appears as a realist, because he at least does not remain blind to the role played by oil-interests in the American dealings with the Middle East.

Buruma and Margalit, Mitzman and Harris — each of them in their own way lifts up the veil of the western division against itself, which has expanded, through the globalisation process, on a global scale. Precisely because the authors approach this in such different ways, with a seeming neutrality, a fundamental critique or a greedy approval, the fact itself attains a more unapproachable appearance. Because however one judges the case, it is evident that this globalisation, the youngest form of the worldwide western expansion of capitalism, politics (imperialism, democracy, human rights) and science and technology that has been an ongoing process of centuries, is setting the agenda everywhere: the agenda of terrorists and antiterrorists, of multinationals and antiglobalists, of realists and utopians.

The split, here, is of crucial importance, because it is what connects the opposites without superseding them and thus makes the apparently more and more mysterious process into a comprehensive totality. Within it, globalisation and terrorism or universalism and occidentalism can longer be seen as separate — except if one is prepared to thoroughly delude oneself.