The conquering of nations, the extending of ones imperial and cultural influence is borne from an internal conviction of ones own superiority or the belief of duty to liberate, educate, or in the classical colonial terminology: civilise others.
Whether that is the spreading of Christianity or Democracy, the basic assumption is the same. The coloniser convinces him or herself that the motives of their activity are noble, and while the former in colonial times gave existential weight in the sense of doing God’s will on earth – the latter has been cushioned in similar existential baggage. Francis Fukuyama’s, The End of History and the Last Man, is an example of an effort to give the Neo-Conservative policy of taking democracy to people around the world, a philosophical ground. But while this much is true, so too is the subjectivity of the reasons provided and hence the focus of motivation must move elsewhere and one must dig deeper to uncover the driving force.
Early analysis of European colonialism tended to project the enterprise in economic terms. Early Marxist interpretations bore the induction of Marx himself
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. 
It was, in many ways, Said’s canonical work, Orientalism, which began the modern scholarship within academies that sought to explain the colonialist project as cultural as well as economic phenomena. Through it one of the most interesting developments occurred. Said and others after him began to see a curious dialectic at work within the mechanism of colonialism. This was based squarely on the relationship developed between coloniser and colonised. The colonial apparatus required that the ‘other’ be defined so that he may be fixed and become at once the colonial subject and the object by which the coloniser may ratify the knowledge of himself. In so doing the coloniser becomes embroiled in defining himself against the natives and figuring it in this way demonstrates the manner in which the empire became an act of self-definition. We were civilised so long as they could be conceptualised as uncivil or needing to be civilised. This was not an entirely new understanding, indeed in many ways it was the application of an older idea to a more recent reality.
As far back as the enlightenment, Rousseau had conceived of civilised man in terms of his dichotomy to primitive man. While this was common for eighteenth century thinkers, Rousseau was unique in idealising the primitive man as free. For Rousseau the freedom was of a particular type and interestingly enough he saw it in terms of structures and the manner in which we used them for self-definition. What made modern society modern was the particular structures it had created – cultural, economic – all of which bound the individual in society to modes of meaning dependent on others and their approving or disapproving. ‘The savage lives within himself;’ says Rousseau in his A Discourse on Inequality, ‘social man lives always outside himself; he knows how to live only in the opinion of others, it is so to speak, from their judgement alone that he derives the sense of his own experience’. Social man by his very sociability seeks a sense of himself through others, and therefore a component of civilisation is the creating of structures through which such recognition is mediated. Timothy Mitchell presents a lucid analysis of colonisation in terms of modernity. He interprets modernity as an ‘ontology of representation’.
Using the World Exhibitions [of the mid nineteenth century] as his central motif, but extending his argument to zoos, department stores, museums, urban architecture, and academic theories of culture and language, Mitchell suggests that the modern person is oriented to the world as if from the outside.
The impulse of the nineteenth century – the high colonial period – was, as an article in The Times declared in the summer of 1851, ‘to place everything we can lay our hands on under glass cases, and to stare our fill’. The impulse was as Rousseau had sensed over a hundred years ago, modern man’s psychological need to seek outside himself signifiers of himself – the signified. This in the colonial context had a refracting effect. The colonised, like the objects in the Great 1851 Exhibition, were similarly objectified in being used as signifiers by the colonisers for themselves, and yet the refraction was that Western man was similarly objectified and fixed within a structure of meaning.
The disillusionment with such structures in the early part of the twentieth century was born of the developments of the preceding century with the likes of Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Marx explained that everything in society was created to serve the ruling class; Darwinian theory undermined the notion of a spiritual human being; and Freud, further underlined that notion as well as undermining the enlightenment belief in man as a rational agent. All of this gave rise to the modernist movement. These set of disillusioned artists began to rebel against previously inherited structures (both in terms of content and style), they saw these in Rousseaun terms as inhibiting individuals’ true nature, and sought increasingly toward a new reality where the individual was central above and beyond structures. Moreover, the definition of the self would be located not outside the self but from within, a feature encouraged by the growing discipline of psychology at the turn of the twentieth century. This breaking with the past was essentially a breaking with previously immutable structures in the hope that it would lead to individual liberation, and as a result a healthier society where individuals were nurtured and not crushed by old structures such as class for example. It is not at all incidental then, that much of the movements of the early twentieth century were movements of self-determination – the suffragette, the Black Civil Rights movement, Congress’s growing strength of quit-India directed by Western educated Indians. Following the post-war era, the dissolution of empire – especially if the war is read, as it is by some historians (see Thomas Childers) as a halt to Hitler’s ambition of empire – became inevitable within the context of the growing liberal intellectual climate.
Yet a quiet American political philosopher foresaw problems within the liberal ideal. Leo Strauss warned against individual freedoms because he saw these as undermining the shared collective moral framework that held society together, a fact which many functionalist sociologists had for a long time asserted. When in the late 1960’s riots broke out in America and the world witnessed the dramatic social chaos of the country, many intellectuals were confounded to understand why the social reforms that had been passed in the early part of that decade were producing unexpected results. One popular reason was that the old structures, the racial one in particular, were mounting great resistance. Others were equally led to question the very individualism that underlay the liberal ideal. Irving Kristol, a leading liberal journalist in the sixties says in Adam Curtis’s film, The Power of Nightmares.
If you had asked any liberal in 1960, “we’re going to pass these laws, these laws and these laws” mentioning all the laws that were in fact passed in the 1960’s and 70’s, “would you say crime will go up, drug addiction will go up, illegitimacy will go up, or would they go down”, and everyone would have said, obviously they will go down, and everyone would have been wrong. Now, that isn’t something the liberals have been able to face up to. They had their reform and they have led to consequences that they did not expect and they don’t know what to do about.
In the early seventies disaffected intellectuals – Paul Wolfowitz and Francis Fukuyama, to name a few – turned to the teachings of Strauss to explain why the optimistic policies failed. Strauss explained that individualism corroded the collective bonds of society leading inevitably towards conflict. But this was not entirely unique. Emile Durkheim, in as early as the nineteenth century, had coined the term anomie to describe the orderlessness of society were it to loose its structures or institutions which provided it with a sense of collective norms and values. Strauss’s significance is more in terms of the solution he presented, but again this was not entirely original since it built on the Platonic ideas expressed in the Republic. An elite needed to expound powerful and inspiring myths – in Plato, a necessary lie – in which the whole population could believe and therefore through it share a sense of purpose and an identity of self. These myths didn’t need to be true, they were necessary illusions unifying an age that was becoming more and more fragmented. This fragmentation came specifically from a loss of self identity, a factor made stark by the myth that the neo-conservatives would push for, once they entered politics and, in the Regan and today’s Bush administration, the White House.
Once in a position of influence they set about creating an axis of absolute evil against whom the myth of America was polished and refined. This myth provided a sense of purpose and pride to the people of America, giving them something greater than themselves to believe in, this myth of the good and evil was precisely the type of myth Strauss had taught his student would help lift American society from moral relativism and social decay. The first focus of this narrative fell on America’s cold war enemy the Soviet Union. This enemy existed because it opposed the free market, which historically was the cornerstone of Western Capitalism, and so like empire where there is no doubt an economic connection, so was there an economic angle between the Capitalist West and the Socialist Soviets. But, underpinning this bare economic divide was an array of cultural baggage created for self-definition. The opposition to Henry Kissenger in the seventies by the neo-cons was because he was interested only in the economics of it all – creating a ‘truly global society’, in Kissenger’s words, ‘based on the principal of interdependence’. He did not see, therefore, what the Straussians did which was the necessity of an ‘other’ against whom we may define our self, without which there will be an inevitable individual and social disintegration.
Carrying the principal of empire the neo-conservatives have as the basis of their politics an imperial mind frame. With the defeat of the Soviets in the eighties, there was the need for an ‘other’ which partly they found in the radical Islamists, and partly created. Considering then that the end of Western Empires has not really even been historic for a hundred years yet, it is important to remember that our historic trajectories often influence our future one. And like a virus mutating to become more resilient to medication, so too is the new ‘other’ in the imagination of the West far superior a fiction than the old colonial or cold war signifier.
The Islamic threat is in part true and in part created. It is true in so far as the Muslim world illustrates greatest resistance to Westernisation; Samuel P. Huntington in his famous Clash of Civilisations, twenty years ago, identified as much, and it is also true that disaffected young males in the middle-east and across the Islamic world perceive the West – with a great deal of logic – as a political bully in the world representing all sorts of contradictions. But as a connected, conspiring, and all pervading network – Al Qaeda is a fiction. It is in many ways a kind of totem (to use functionalist terminology) a symbol representing something much more abstract and therefore more difficult to capture the imaginations of the masses. It is temporally and spatially disconnected able to move wherever necessary and hence following it there becomes concomitant in the war on terror. Spatially it is without a base and therefore in many ways without voice, for whereas the Soviet Union was fixed on a map and had its own machinery to air its own voice, the voice of Al Qaeda has to be mediated through a secondary agent. Temporally, the colonised and even the Soviet threat contained the commonsensical notion that there must come a time where matters will force themselves to be resolved – and in both cases they did. Such a commonsensical idea is less confidently applied to this war on an adjective. It has been cast in such a way that, when you think it is over, it is then that your mind will feel itself most threatened, and so almost by a kind of internal mechanism, the jinn once out of its bottle seems unlikely that it will go back in.
What you have by degrees is a never ending war and this serves a triple purpose. The power of those ruling is consolidated and in the Orwellian sense, ‘it does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and since, no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that the sate of war should exist’. The reason being, ‘the consciousness of war, and therefore of danger, makes the handing over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival’. This much is seen in the torrent of legislation passed or even conceived of in the shadow of this new ‘enemy the like of which we have not seen before’.
The second reason is that it provides ever greater oil to the machinery of war. ‘The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a ways of shattering the pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials’ that if left alone destabilises the capitalist market economy. An increasing scale of production, inevitable in the Capitalist system as Marx saw it, requires the disposing of the production, and this classically has been the idea of opening up new markets. But ‘even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed…in principle the war effort is always so planned to eat up the surplus that might exist after meeting the needs of the population’. Orwell expresses the unique economy of war weaponry as something that is constantly in revision, as new threats arise, new weaponry is needed for combat. But more insidiously, weapons by their nature carry for regimes symbolic expediency to the display and continuation of power. War, like everything else is a business, and there are many with vested interest in continuing a climate conducive to this lucrative enterprise.
Lastly, a war with no end in sight ingeniously constructs an invisible empire – the borders may be uncertain but the necessity to assert our moral superiority becomes dutiful in the face of a relentless enemy because, it is reasoned, he is beyond redemption. And lest nations fall prey to his depravity we must install in other lands a system which would by its virtues till the soil such that the enemy will have no place to hide or recruit. The war that never ends provides the most fixed ‘other’ that the coloniser could hope for and in having created it himself the coloniser performs an ingenuity of imagination; he is at once signifier and signified. He has achieved in part the aspiration of needing nothing outside of himself to define himself, but in achieving this he has broached upon several dark paradoxes. If he has defined himself as godly, against the demonic ‘other’, in so far as the ‘other’ is of his own imagining, the coloniser is also the devil.
‘In a society that believes in nothing’, Bill Durodie, Director of the International Centre for Security Analysis, King’s College says, ‘fear becomes the only agenda. While the majority of the twentieth century was dominated by a conflict between a free market right and a socialist left, even though both of those outlooks had their limitations and their problems, at least they believed in something, whereas what we are seeing now is a society that believes in nothing. And a society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by people who believe in anything and therefore we label those people as fundamentalists or fanatics, and they have much greater purchase in terms of the fear that they instil in society, than they truly deserve’. He goes on to add that this ‘is a measure of how much we [the West] have become isolated and atomised’ and affirms therefore the central idea that Western society has lost above everything else a sense of itself, becoming increasingly fragmented. That situation has led it to venture down once again the path of empire in so far as re-erecting some of its framework, and in particular the employment of an ‘other’.
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.