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The Freikorps Revival

Monday, September 14th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”]

One of the signs that the Westphalian state system was approaching its zenith was the gradual extinction of legal private warfare in Europe (and in America , east of the frontier). While this trend predated the French Revolution with divine right absolutism monarchs taxing and regulating their nobles once formidable feudal armies into harmless personal bodyguards and ceremonial companies, it was enforced in earnest after the Napoleonic wars by now bureaucratic nation-states. To the sovereign power of the state jealously guarding its monopoly on the legal use of force, in the late 19th century were added the weight of international law.

While once it was commonplace for heavily armed “Free Companies” to roam Europe’s battlefields, hiring themselves out or pillaging on their own, neither the Lieber Code nor the Hague Convention took an indulgent view of the professional mercenary or the provincial partisan, proscribing their historic role in warfare and condemning them along with spies and saboteurs to death. By the time of the First World War with the exception of Tsarist Russia, which still had vestiges of pre-modern feudalism in their Cossack hosts that supplemented the Russian Army, all of the great and middle powers entered WWI with national armies based upon mass conscription, run by a professional officer corps. Even America saw its long established military tradition of locally raised volunteer units of the States abolished by President Wilson, who instituted a draft. Wilson it seems, feared the political effects of an aging Teddy Roosevelt leading a new band of Rough Riders on the Western Front.

This situation shifted dramatically in the aftermath of the Great War. Communist revolution and civil war in Russia, Hungary and Bavaria spawned a rebirth of private militarism; right-wing and nationalist “white” paramilitaries composed of ex-soldiers  battled anarchist and Bolshevik “Red guards” made up of factory workers and party militants. In defeated Germany, a vigorous and heavily armed “Freikorps” movement of embittered veterans led by charismatic officers arose and fought engagements in the Baltic states, in Polish and Czech borderlands, in the Ruhr and in Bavaria, where they crushed a short-lived Soviet republic.

Partially suppressed by the weak Weimar state, partially covertly subsidized and organized by the leadership of the German Army which saw the Friekorps as a “Black Reichswehr” strategic reserve against French attack, the Freikorps degenerated, pillaged, mutated into terrorist  organizations and gradually merged with and militarized Germany’s extreme nationalist and volkisch (racialist) political factions, including the nascent National Socialist German Workers Party. Ex-Freikorps fighters became the backbone of the Nazi SA and nationalist Stahlhelm armies of brawlers, thugs and hooligans. They even had their own newspapers, sports clubs, artists and writers, among whom Ernst Junger was a favorite of that generation.

The reason for this long historical prologue is that it is happening again. The fascinating article below from VICE gives evidence of what should be called a Freikorps Revival. Note the connection to the French Foreign Legion veterans with the Azov Regiment; the Legion once welcomed almost as many German Freikorps men as did the Nazi Party.

Meet the European Fighters Who Have Gone to War in Ukraine

….”I spent all day with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, wondering how I was going to kill myself and how many [separatists] I could take with me,” said Chris “Swampy” Garrett, a British citizen and a member of the squad of Europeans fighting in Eastern Ukraine for Azov Regiment.

Garrett had just returned to Kiev after a failed mission behind enemy lines in the small village of Shyrokyne. His team had been surrounded and cut off from Ukrainian positions before the men fled. He spent over 14 hours trapped behind an enemy advance, fighting in close quarters and taking shelter from friendly artillery fire, before sneaking out of the village under the cover of darkness.

For Garrett, who has served in the British army and done humanitarian de-mining work in the Karen State on the Thai/Myanmar border, the decision to join the Azov Battalion was a simple one: “One day they posted up on the [Azov Battalion] Facebook site, asking, ‘We need people who have any kind of knowledge with first aid, volunteering, with basic military skills, de-mining, anything. If you have any skills at all, to any level, can you come and help?’ So I kind of saw that as my route in, even if I didn’t stay with the [Azov] Battalion. [It was] my surest way to get into the country—get into the east and then be able to see the bigger picture from there.”

….Garrett is not the only member of the group of European soldiers who came to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But while some came to protect Ukraine, others here came to fight for conservative and nationalist politics in Ukraine’s relatively open political space. For Harley, a 42-year-old from France who served in the French navy and later in the private security industry, involvement was two-sided: he came “to help Ukraine against Russia” and wears a “Fuck U Putin” bracelet on his wrist, but joined Azov because its politics were similar to his own: “Azov,” he said, propagated a political agenda that “was closer to my idea.” 

Azov’s politics have drawn fire for being far-right to the point of neo-Nazism; “If you want to find Nazis, [Azov] is the place to come,” one soldier told me on the way to the frontline. And yet, the political reality of Azov is much more complicated than that. One soldier in the European group told me he estimates that around 20 percent of the battalion could be considered neo-Nazis, while David Eriksson—a 48-year-old Swede who owns real estate and marketing businesses—said: “I think almost 100 percent of foreigners—it used to be maybe 90 percent of foreigners—are not Nazis. They are here to fight.”

Read the rest here.

This may be a meta-trend. Everywhere, rootless young (and some not so young) men are turning their backs on civilized existence and seeking out answers to life or a quick death in lawless conflict zones. Third generation European Muslims who leave families and communities to join ISIS in Syria while American and Dutch motorcycle gang members show up to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga. Russian outlaw bikers by contrast are Putin’s Cossacks in the Crimea and Donbass while in Pakistan the ISI has made funneling angry young men into terrorist groups and militias something of a cottage industry

Some of these men will never return, but most will. If the lessons of history are to be reckoned, this bodes poorly for the future. They will bring a Darwinian outlook and a politics of the gun.

Sunday surprise – Donald Trump the movie critic

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Trump on Citizen Kane ]

A Rosebud by any other name?

Lexington Green Interviewed on Against the Current

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

America 3.0 : Rebooting Prosperity in the 21st Century by James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus

Lexington Green” of Chicago Boyz blog, a.k.a Michael Lotus, co-author of America 3.0 was interviewed recently by Chicago talk radio host and TV commentator Dan   Proft, on Proft’s video podcast, Against the Current.

I heartily approve of the cigars.

Tune in for approximately fifty minutes of conversation regarding national and local politics, futurism, economics and political philosophy through the analytic prism of America 3.0 (a book I warmly endorse):


Elite Failure and Populist Trump It

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

GOP Front Runner, Donald J. Trump

A friend sent an essay by the prolific IR scholar, Professor Angelo Codevilla that had been posted at Powerline Blog.  It was good.

For the unfamiliar, Codevilla often writes on national security and intelligence matters and some readers may be familiar with his (with Paul Seabury) book,  War: Ends and Means ; but in recent years Codevilla has, like Walter Russell Mead and a number of other intellectuals, turned his attention to the shoddy performance, ethical deficiencies and arrogant demands of the new American “ruling class”, writing a biting critique of their “meritocratic regime”.

In his essay for Powerline, Codevilla turns his attention to the political phenomenon of the improbable GOP presidential front runner, billionaire and reality TV star, Donald Trump.  Unsurprisingly, Dr. Codevilla is not a huge fan of the bombastic Mr. Trump, but his analysis of why Trump has captured the moment so easily has some astute insights about the decaying state of our political system and the seething anger of the electorate:

Does Trump trump?

“In the land of the blind,” so goes the saying, “the one-eyed man is king.” Donald Trump leapt atop other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination when he acted on the primordial fact in American public life today, from which most of the others hide their eyes, namely: most Americans distrust, fear, are sick and tired of, the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic officials who rule over us, as well as their cronies in the corporate, media, and academic world. Trump’s attraction lies less in his words’ grace or even precision than in the extent to which Americans are searching for someone, anyone, to lead against this ruling class, that is making America less prosperous, less free, and more dangerous.

Trump’s rise reminds this class’s members that they sit atop a rumbling volcano of rejection. Republicans and Democrats hope to exorcise its explosion by telling the public that Trump’s remarks on immigration and on the character of fellow member John McCain (without bothering to try showing that he errs on substance), place him outside the boundaries of their polite society. Thus do they throw Br’er Rabbit into the proverbial briar patch. Now what? The continued rise in Trump’s poll numbers reminds all that Ross Perot – in an era that was far more tolerant of the Establishment than is ours – outdistanced both Bush 41 and Bill Clinton before self-destructing, just by speaking ill of both parties before he self destructed

Trump’s barest hints about what he opposes (never mind proposes) regarding just a few items on the public agenda have had such effect because they accord with what the public has already concluded about them. For example,Trump remarked, off the cuff, that “Mexico does not send us its best.” The public had long since decided that our ruling class’s handling of immigration (not just from Mexico) has done us harm. The ruling class – officials, corporations, etc.- booed with generalities but did not try to argue that they had improved America by their handling of immigration. The more they would argue that, the more they would lose. At least if someone more able than Trump were leading against them.

….The point here is simple: our ruling class has succeeded in ruling not by reason or persuasion, never mind integrity, but by occupying society’s commanding heights, by imposing itself and its ever-changing appetites on the rest of us. It has coopted or intimidated potential opponents by denying the legitimacy of opposition. Donald Trump, haplessness and clownishness notwithstanding, has shown how easily this regime may be threatened just by refusing to be intimidated

[Emphasis mine]

Read the rest here.

Codevilla is right. He may even be understating the nature of the problem, as remarkable as that may seem.

Our bipartisan ruling elite have, in the short space of fifteen years, managed to: lose two wars; collapse at least three states into permanent anarchy; turn Russia into an enemy again; suffer the greatest counterintelligence failures in history;  nearly melt down the entire global economy and vastly enrich themselves while presiding over the greatest loss of household wealth for ordinary Americans in history, save for the Great Depression. If that is not a level of incompetence that should disqualify them from public office forever, I’m not sure what would.

Despite this track record of utter failure and brazen venality, our elite have managed to remain firmly in the saddle. Why is this ? In a normal countries they typically have revolutions and coups over far less, but our leaders of both parties managed to cruise from disasters to debacles to win re-election, often by substantial margins.

One reason may be is that the elite, broadly speaking, have managed to restore a substantial degree of control over the information the general public consumes that they had briefly lost  in the early 2000’s and subsequently narrowed and shape the terms of “acceptable” political debate in American society more than ever before.

Once upon a time, the mass media ecology was relatively simple and politically reflected what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. termed “the vital center” of Cold War liberalism.  The New York Times editorial page set the general line for informed opinion and most regional and local papers dutifully fell in line, with the Washington Post, TIME, Newsweek, LIFE and US News & World Report generally critiquing whatever debate the Times had begun in greater depth. The three networks ABC, NBC and CBS by contrast simplified and reinforced these narratives with the immediacy and power of television. The “Fairness Doctrine” effectively made the system an elite monopoly by freezing out dissenting opinions from the Left or Right from radio or television broadcast. Cold War liberalism was de facto defined as a politically neutral position not requiring “equal time”. It also represented shared values between most journalists and editors and the American leaders upon whom they reported.

This center began to lose its vitality when liberalism itself became divided over the Vietnam War between hawks and doves and support for various counterculture and cultural liberation movements; the media landscape began to shift and diversify after the Reagan administration terminated the fairness doctrine and the rise of cable news and talk radio. The era of wailing by the gatekeepers really commenced though with the rise of the blogosphere and the early days of social media which contributed to and coincided with the implosion of the newspaper publishing industry as ad revenue tanked. For a while, the internet meant that the elite lost control of the conversation, carefully constructed media scams were outed, scandals were discovered and online tsunamis of anger came down on the once high and mighty.

Elite control over discourse has been reestablished to a degree, not as a monopoly but as a loose hegemony based on the principles of Co-option, Coordination and Coercion.

The media elite are now fully integrated into the political and economic elite, intermarrying with them, sending their kids to the same prep schools, Presidents hiring spouses and siblings of network executives and political aides becoming faux journalists. Its as if James Reston’s brother or Walter Cronkite’s wife had gone to work for Richard Nixon and their kids to school with John F. Kennedy, Jr.  The journalists and editors covertly coordinate news campaigns with each other, politicians, the White House, parties and advocates of causes that they support and when this fails to persuade, the elite like to intimidate.  From abusing the powers of government to harass political opponents to whipping up tribal partisan mobs on social media to furiously abuse or dox some hapless private citizen, perhaps trying to ruin their livelihood for daring to express unwelcome of opinions on subjects the elite find distasteful.

And the list of proscribed beliefs and topics grows increasingly long. The following is a partial list of topics or views generally not supposed to be mentioned by candidates, much less debated by the national standards of American politics and mainstream media:

Seeking victory vs. intentionally losing wars
Big donors and corporations which benefit financially from our foreign policy decisions
Criticizing crony capitalism not as vague generalities but as systemic corruption and identifying criminal behavior
Muslim immigrant radicalization and participation in terrorism here and in Europe
Abuse of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion by government officials
Mass surveillance/”creepy-statesecurity theater abuses of the rights of American citizens
Violent crime statistics broken down by race, especially rates of violent crime committed by young Black males
Disparities in sentencing broken down by race, especially  harsh sentences for young Black males convicted of non-violent or minor offenses
Successful self-defense with a gun (if criminals/terrorists die – so will the story in short order)
Raising living standards for ordinary Americans as proper intent of government policy
Immigration, esp. illegal immigration or that the  Immigration Act of 1965 was intended to change national demographics and drive down wages of skilled professionals and unskilled workers.
Systematically tilting the scales against admitting the children of middle class and working class white and Asian-Americans to elite, “gateway” universities
Erosion of Rule of Law  (including the following)

And this is only a partial list.

To do well in the first Republican debate, Donald Trump need only show up and select a few of the more emotionally charged themes and throw them like bombs at the other GOP hopefuls on live television who will scatter but be unable to escape the collateral damage. Trump won’t need a plan or a policy or even a reasoned argument because his opponents have no way to talk sensibly about touchy subjects on the minds of millions of voters that their financial backers and the media don’t want them to even acknowledge. Harder still if Trump is getting laugh lines in at their expense. All of Trump’s vainglorious posturing like a professional wrestling heel aside, the man is absolutely at home in the television medium and comfortable in his own skin (to say nothing of his hair).

A real quandary. Attacking Trump personally, calling him names, ganging up on him or echoing liberal media criticisms will only boost his poll numbers with the GOP base and energize his clown car crash of a presidential campaign to new heights. Having nothing to lose himself with his self-parodying run, no need of campaign donors, Trump cannot be controlled and in a live format could drag down any other candidate with him. Or the Republican Party.

Trump would be an absolutely terrible president – its not even clear that he is serious about wanting the job – but as a candidate he is a walking, talking, club for Joe Sixpack to bludgeon an overweening, corrupt and increasingly authoritarian bipartisan elite.

The beating though is richly deserved and long overdue.

Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

Hunger for Fascism

Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

[….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

“I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

[….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

“Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

Read the whole thing here.

The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

“I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

This is a great question.

The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.


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