A World Astir|Sep 11, 2004 10:59 AM| by:

Fanaticism’s Falling Towers

‘What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are the hooded hordes swarming…
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

          T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)


Our world is at once more interconnected and more polarised.  It is more closely connected both for positive reasons and negative reasons. On the plus side, there is technological progress and the greater ease of cultural exchange.  On the minus side there is the mounting ecological crisis, the threat of terrorism and the rise of multinational corporations that lack local and democratic accountability.  Yet we also live in an increasingly disconnected, polarised world, as ethnic and religious hostilities assert themselves increasingly and fanatical ideologies compete for global attention.  We hear talk, especially in the West, of a ‘clash of civilisations’ underlying the so-called war on terror.  But it is more instructive to think in terms of a clash of fanaticisms, as the West’s free-market fundamentalism – the neo-liberal ‘project’ – encounters religious or spiritually based resistance, of which Al-Qaeda is the most visible and dramatic example.

With the Cold War over, and the challenge of a parallel system, Communism, defeated, triumphalist Western policy-makers tend to assume that have carte blanche.  They can, they believe, impose their versions of development and democracy on the rest of the world, riding roughshod over local complexities because they are so sure of their own rightness.  This secular missionary imperative is a caricature of the West’s democratic ideals because it is one-sided and absolutist, because it is founded exclusively on materialism and because it lacks either a spiritual dimension or a sense of history.  The reaction they face, principally but not exclusively from the Islamic world, is equally one-sided.  Instead of renewing ancient cultures and noble faiths, such reactions produce grotesque and philistine parodies of these traditions. 

 If there is to be reconciliation, there must first be balance.  Sri Aurobindo realised that political struggle alone was not enough, but that spirituality left to itself produced a social vacuum.  Spiritual growth and the pursuit of social justice are complementary principles, not opposites.  Such an approach transcends fanaticism, political or religious.  What we call evil is in reality a lack of integration, whether that is between the human and the divine, the political and the spiritual, progress and conservation, or the global and the local.  ‘9/11’, as it is now universally known, is a powerful symbol of all these divisions.  On its third anniversary, we would do well to rethink our approach to politics, to seek unity in diversity, instead of clinging to dogmas that diminish our humanity.  Such clinging to dogmas is a symptom of a deeper cultural crisis, which like all crises at once threatens disintegration and offers the possibility of renewal. 

 In The Waste Land, Eliot does not include New York amongst his roll call of cities, ancient and modern. This is hardly surprising as his epic was written when New York was on the up-and-up, cultural pessimism reigned in Europe and US civilisation’s confidence in itself was at a high. His verses, nonetheless, are called to mind by the recent atrocities in New York and Washington. The World Trade Centre’s falling towers remind us, horribly, that city-based ‘civilisation’ is so vulnerable despite its strength. This is because the source of that strength, the concentration of wealth and power, is also the origin of its weakness. When economic and political bastions are in close proximity and controlled by a few individuals or interest groups, they become sitting targets for murderous fanatics.

Such was the case with the act of evil that destroyed the World Trade Centre and took thousands of innocent lives, lives for the most part of functionaries, cogs in a machine: the office proletariat. From the carnage emerged scenes of great bravery and sacrifice – traditional, chivalrous courage that has survived free-market dogma and ‘political correctness’ to expose the worthlessness of both. The market chaos and the evidence of manipulation of the markets by terrorism’s supporters show us how artificial much of our economic system has become. Economics, originally the science of household management, is reduced to number crunching, more a modern superstition than a science. Instead of treating it as the servant of humanity, we allow it to take on a life of its own and become our master. We worship economic forces and markets with a zeal uncomfortably close to religious mania. No wonder that George Soros, who knows a lot about how capitalism works, speaks of a ‘market fundamentalism’ that poses a threat to social stability and humane values.

In its evocation of falling towers, The Waste Land reminds us that history is not a line of inevitable progress, as the neo-liberal and Marxist thinkers would have us believe. If it has a pattern at all, it is cyclical, a process of rise and fall. Civilisations often decline when they over-reach themselves and underestimate their opponents, or when they lose touch with their founding principles. The value of the ecology movement lies in its critique of modern ideas of progress, its awareness of the limits to growth (economic or political) and its emphasis on the human scale. On these precepts, Greens of socialist or conservative disposition can find common ground. This means, in these troubled times, attempting to bring to political life a sense of humanity and balance, the absence of which aids fundamentalists of all stripes. Aristotle wisely tells us that there are natural limits to the size of states, as there are to the size of plants and animals. This is why, once states reach a certain size, they become non-viable. They develop oppressive bureaucracies and pass an intolerable number of laws as their rulers become paranoid and remote.

In large states, therefore, there is an upward devolution of power, away from ‘the people’ towards bureaucrats, bankers and CEOs. Globalisation is upward devolution writ large: from governments to big corporations, nation-states to multinational power blocs and cultural diversity to consumerist monoculture. As political and economic units grow larger, the moral basis of government is eroded. Its agencies become inaccessible and lose legitimacy. Enlargement does not produce enlightenment: it creates a culture of mistrust in which extremist movements readily take hold.

Islamic fundamentalism is the most fearsome expression to date of a worldwide upsurge in militant identity politics. Identity-based movements place group loyalty before individual freedom, offer simplistic explanations for complex problems and demonise their opponents as enemies or traitors. Far from being ‘reactionary’ they show disdain for history, tradition and continuity. Rather than seeking to put the clock back, they seek to impose Utopia. Thus the ideology of radical Islamists has more in common with secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century than with traditional Islam. It distorts beliefs and customs of the Muslim world, as Nazis temporarily distorted German culture or racists distort the concept of nationhood.

Other fundamentalisms do not practise terrorism, but distort ideals and favour force over compromise. The ‘Religious Right’ invokes Christ’s teachings and American values, but shows little compassion and respect for the liberties of others. Feminist fundamentalists vilify women who oppose them, along with a male enemy that includes boys and men. Theirs is a travesty of genuine feminism, which is generous and humane in spirit. Liberal fundamentalists assume that they can set the world free with charters of ‘rights’ plus ‘market reforms’. They are dismayed when their prescriptions are rejected, and angered when their West-knows-best arrogance is denounced as imperialism. Fundamentalist identity politics is the product of globalisation and the confused, fragmented world it creates, a world of intolerable levels of ‘communication’ but precious little talk.

In The Waste Land, the reader is asked: ‘What are those roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?’ I hope that when our minds are calmer we draw lessons from this curiously symbolic atrocity. We might learn, for example, that grandiose global schemes produce only fundamentalist hatred, not unity. We might also understand that human-scale economics and the diffusion of power can bring us political security, as well as ecological balance. It is by learning such lessons that we may successfully defeat evil, or rather restore equilibrium and then spiritually and politically evolve.

Aidan Rankin

(Aidan Rankin is Publications Officer for the Economic Research Council in London, UK. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Ecologist magazine.)