Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Monday, August 09, 2004

Eric Hoffer and the Roots of Terror

A pro-war blogger recommended by the indefatigably error-prone Michael Totten wrote: "I am quite surprised at how quickly many people seem to have forgotten the 9/11-atrocities, the bombs in Istanbul and the Madrid bombs."

You forgot Bali, dude.

In fact, I don't know a single person who has forgotten about any of these incidents - though some may take some reminding about Istanbul.

A great last-resort sneer: paint your opponents as suffering from amnesia.

This blogger invokes Paul Berman's "cult of death" thinking, but I have always felt that Berman assigns far too much weight to supposed free-standing attractions of an ideology and not nearly enough weight to the conditions in which such ideologies naturally fester. These conditions remain very much as Eric Hoffer described in his classics like The True Believer, as he sought to understand the sources of mass movements that led to far greater global cataclysms than our War on Terror.

A careful reading of Hoffer leaves little room for surprise that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, a country that enjoyed a generations-long taste of oil-driven affluence but which now declines precipitously in GDP per capita. As well, the lack of diversification of the Saudi economy has meant that a young individual in that society, facing the prospect of less unearned affluence than their parents enjoyed, can easily fall prey to syndromes Hoffer described so well.

Hoffer: "Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing."

I.e., it is not absolute poverty driving islamofascist terrorism. Look at Afghanistan under the Taliban. Near the bottom of the list in literacy, income and infant survival rates. More ridiculously fundamentalist than Al Qaeda, if anything. It may have exported heroin but it didn't export terror until a rich Saudi scion took up residence. Even then, Afghans looked down upon these Arab interlocutors as spoiled, weak, and arrogant.

Hoffer: "Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual?"

Saudi Arabia exports huge quantites of oil, but how many brilliant petroleum engineers has it produced? No, the Saudi royal family finances a welfare state financed by paying foreigners to turn the cranks; talent earns far less than good family connections.

Hoffer: "The ideal potential convert is the individual who stands alone, who has no collective body he can blend with and lose himself in and so mask the pettiness, meaninglessness, and shabbiness of his individual existence."

Gosh, doesn't that sound a lot like many of Al Qaeda recruits who have since been scooped up? Saudi Arabia - which imports increasing technological expertise to produce decreasing amounts of oil for decreasing financial returns - will tend to produce more and more of this type over the long run. The non-oil Arab states have already produced plenty of such jihadist cannon fodder.

Hoffer: "The discontent generated by backward countries by their contact with Western civilization is not primarily resentment against exploitation by domineering foreigners. It is rather the result of a crumbling or unmaking of tribal solidarity and communal life."

Yes, as we learned with Iran in 1979. That Hatred of the Infidel requires manufacture. The Saudi state has helped in this, but increasingly, Saudi subjects have seen through this manipulation, and seek to own that cultivated hatred on their own terms - or on the terms of energetic religious leaders if they can provide a source of community.

Hoffer: "A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves - and it does this by enfolding them and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole."

And that 'corporate whole' can be a islamofascist terror group.

Hoffer: "When people revolt in a totalitarian society, they rise not against the wickedness of the regime but it weakness."

The Saudi royal family is having increasing trouble buying acquiescence to its totalitarian state in recent years, with the fall-off in oil earnings.

Hoffer: "The differentiated individual is free of boredom only when he is engaged either in creative work or some absorbing occupation or when he is wholly engrossed in the struggle for existence."

Saudi rulers have created a more 'differentiated individual' subject. By not differentiating their economy, however, they have passed up the chance to provide creative work and absorbing occupations - in fact, they will soon be unable to even subsidize such activities. These 'prematurely-differentiated individuals' will look to collective struggles - experiences that provide something like a 'struggle for existence' even though existence still isn't that hard. To be a terrorist is exciting, it is to put one's life on precarious terms indeed - for the bored, the talentless, the frustrated, the alienated, the envious, and the lonely, engaging in Jihad (described by some terrorists as being like an addiction) may feel more like joining a life-cult, not a death-cult.

Hoffer: "When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to incalculate a readiness of self-sacrifice."

I.e., these instruments cannot work without raw material. Only social conditions can supply that raw material. If it were otherwise, one would only need to enter any society with some version of a previously-successful mass-movement ideology, and turn that society upside down. This just doesn't happen in most places and at most times in history.

In places like Saudi Arabia, however, the social conditions have been created. These social conditions have been created by western civilization's deal with the devil: buying non-renewable natural resources from nations with value systems and governments that are incompatible with the values of western civilization, while doing little or nothing to change those systems.

I'm all in favor of open, free, democratic systems. I'd just prefer to live in a system that didn't feed the opposite sort of system just be a little richer as well.


At 8:09 PM, Blogger steve said...

what's amazing is the prowar bloggers like totten et al don't seem to get the plain reality that the Spanish vote against the conservatives had little to do with the AQ Madrid attack and everything to do with the Spanish conservatives' coverup of who was the main suspect. they seem to run away from that fact everytime you throw it at them, ever notice?

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Michael Turner said...

Steve, they probably never will get it.

My take on the Spanish bombing and the election results afterward is that Al Qaeda had to hurry up and pull off that attack in time to make it LOOK like they'd significantly influenced the toppling of Aznar. This worked about three different ways for them.

(1) If there are countries in the Coalition of the Swilling that could be intimidated out of Iraq, Spain now seems to set a precedent, and it was an easy precedent to set.

(2) The Anglo-American alliance gets some wind in its sails for its "for-us-or-against-us" rhetoric that, as it hardens, leads only to more of the kinds of adventures that only provide recruits for Al Qaeda.

(3) Finally, they appear to have won one, even though they were going to win it anyway - but this way, it has more recruiting value.

Spain was an excellent choice for them, and the whole episode provides yet more evidence that Al Qaeda is not clueless about how democracies work. It doesn't look at the West as if it were some incalculably mysterious Martian-invader civilization, but sees that it works from rules that they can take advantage of.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger steve said...

my sense, and there's certainly no way of proving it, is that the conservatives might have pulled off a victory *if* they were honest about the fact that it was AQ. they then could have appealed to the electorate to show AQ the spaniards wouldn't be pushed around or some such thing. might possibly have mollified the real anger at the conservatives for their kissing up to Bush/Blair on the illegal invasion of Iraq.

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