The Monday after the massacre in Paris, I walk into a bank near the Place de la République to deposit a little over 1,000 euros into a friend’s account. After a number of tut-tuts the transaction passes. ‘Why all the fuss?’ I ask, only to be informed of new laws being phased in that will prohibit cash transactions over 1,000 euros, with equivalents in Italy, Belgium and numerous other countries also being enacted. ‘Soon, there won’t be such a thing as cash!’ When I question the logic behind such regulation, excitement turns to bewilderment. Didn’t I see what happened on Friday?! ‘C’est pour votre securité.’ Ah yes. Of course. Such measures are there for all our safety.
The argument put forward by our politicians is that laws like these, and associated varieties including internet surveillance and the reintroduction of border controls within Schengen, represent the appropriate response to the defining threat of our times: a civilisational crisis brought about by the march of radical, jihadist Islam. John Gray for example has argued recently in the New Statesman that the state, at least in the West, is returning to its primary function, namely the provision of security. As Hobbes saw so clearly, it is state power that protects our liberties. To prevent anarchy and afford us ‘commodious living’ sometimes those liberties must be compromised.
I suggest a different interpretation; for the argument above makes a number of questionable assumptions: that the greatest danger posed to us is radical Islam; that the State’s primary concern is to ensure the security of its citizens; that it retains the requisite sovereignty for such an undertaking and that state controls are the most important factor in determining whether people behave themselves.
Dealing with these assumptions in turn.
First, unpleasant as it may be, radical Islam poses nowhere near the greatest threat to you and me. It did not create global warming, a hole in the ozone layer, the polluting of our oceans, deforestation, overpopulation, chronic disparities in wealth, mass extinction of species, nor did it make us debt slaves. Such apocalyptic honour goes to a mad economic system that requires exponential growth in order to match a parallel growth in borrowings. Known variously as neoliberalism, the Washington Consensus or the ‘free market economy’ – code for Goldman Sachs – it is every bit as globalising in its vision as Islamic State and far more destructive. It seeks to tear down any wall that impedes its progress, most notably the State and its national apparatus; tariff barriers; variations in languages, weights and measures; differences in political systems and tax regimes; cultural disparities; restrictions on the movement of capital and so on. It masquerades as our friend but needs a rival to camouflage its insidious purpose. Exit communism. Enter the type of heretical Islam which has been exported primarily by Wahhabist Saudi Arabia – our ally naturally enough – and is taught in our mosques, our schools and our prisons but which should at least be commended for its candour: it will not stop until the whole world submits and the new Caliphate’s flag flies over the White House.
Two internationalising, monist forces compete and co-exist in sick symbiosis, with the more televisually spectacular of the pair very much the junior partner. If the West really wanted rid of IS it would happen. As Russia’s foreign minister and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah have noted, the fact that bombing sorties sufficient to annihilate every lizard in the area have achieved nothing begs a lot of questions. By such logic IS is welcome as long as it can be sufficiently ‘contained’ to keep in check genuine threats insubordinate enough to have persistently resisted Western hegemony. To this end, the one power that has consistently put boots on the ground in the fight against IS either directly or through its proxies, namely Iran, is deliberately hamstrung by a Nuclear Agreement which stipulates continuing arms sanctions against it for the next fifteen years. (At the time of writing I have just learned that an Iranian associate has been killed by sniper fire in the battle against IS).
Second, the assumption that today the State’s primary role is to ensure the security of its citizens. Yes, there will be the occasional nod to Hobbes but the soldiers in Brussels and Paris and the border controls between Belgium and France will soon melt away because walls are not good for business. Commentators such as John Gray are right: individual freedoms will yield to security; but security will in turn yield to money. In short, the State’s primary function, at least in the West, is in fact to support the particular economic order that I have outlined above, over and above the citizen.
Take the law discussed at the outset and its absurd logic: a sum that would not buy a night at the George V is deemed a threat by the state and worthy of monitoring, while trillions in funny money is allowed to criss-cross the globe every second of the day, no questions asked, such-life changing tsunamis controlled not by us or our representatives but by the keyboards of a few hundred financial dealers who simply ride the beast wherever it takes them. Security? Our day to day existences will be far more affected by such forces than by a few losers in Raqqa.
In fact such legislation has nothing to do with security. In a cashless society all economic activity is channelled through the banks and a run on the system becomes impossible. Banks don’t care what you put into them or where it comes from – that is for show – what concerns them is what you take out. Under the new dispensation, while we may be able to withdraw our money electronically from HSBC and deposit it into Barclays, it will remain within the system, thereby forestalling collapse. Limitations of space make it impossible to enumerate the endless pieces of equivalent legislation, but take one: The Common Reporting Standard which most of the world’s advanced countries have adopted for implementation by 2017- with the threat of blacklisting by the OECD if they do not comply – and under which countries’ banks will be obliged to report to the governments of every single account holder the full details of his accounts, irrespective of whether any tax is owed. A stated desire to claw back unpaid taxes for our benefit (in the process creating fortuitously a giant database of all our finances) conveniently ignores the point that such taxes amount to pennies next to the trillions in interest payments that we must pay to keep alive a regime centred on the giant global corporations and the banks which service them to the benefit of a tiny rentier class.
Moreover, ineffectual protection of our persons in the face of individuals prepared to blow themselves to pieces surely represents a very narrow understanding of security. What about security of employment? Of housing? Of food? Of sustenance in our old age? What about the protection of a common culture which configures us as social beings? The message of neoliberalism could not be clearer: the social contract by which the members of our commonwealth pool their individual sovereignties and rights in return for the Leviathan’s protection is null and void. When it comes to the state having a role in the provision of security in its broad sense, we are on our own but when it comes to monitoring our every movement, then the state is right behind us.
Next the assumption that states still possess genuine sovereignty: the pre-requisite for protecting their citizens in any meaningful sense. What kind of sovereignty exists when a country can’t even control its own economy? Banks, not states, manufacture the world’s money through the creation of loans that expand and entrap us at a rate IS could not hope to imagine. And what kind of logic declares itself opposed to invasion by an alien culture such as Islam but is more than happy to be taken over by a crass consumer culture that would be as unrecognisable to our grandparents as anything in a radicalised suburb of Brussels? Sovereignty? That is the whole point of the so-called ‘free market economy’ – it requires sovereignty suicide by its national participants; whether in the form of the EU, NAFTA, the WTO and all manner of other globalising treaties that submit to the money imperative
Finally, the assumption that a plethora of laws will make us safer. In fact something much bigger than jihaddist Islam is behind the current prevalence of terror and it is not correlated to an increase or decrease in Orwellian legislation. It occurs on the psychic level and is a reaction to intolerable pressure and growing competition over limited resources, occasioned by an economic system predicated on unsustainable expansion. That economic system in turn atomises and alienates us, creating the psychological terrain for psychopathy.
America for example does not need to import terrorists from Syria. When Obama asks ‘why here?’ every time a school shooting occurs, the better question would be ‘why now?’ After all, Americans have owned guns for centuries. Once upon a time something prevented us from doing these things: a shared sense of history and of destiny; a commitment to the project; a common theme; the fact that we had been brought up on the Classics and had gone to church. All this was taken for granted by Enlightenment philosophers and liberal thinkers such as Hobbes who ignored the social capital built up over centuries and for which the requirement was belief in a cosmic order. It was not only a strong state that afforded us security, therefore, but also a strong church. For the believer, CCTV cameras on every street corner are not needed when he considers that a giant CCTV camera in the sky records his every deed. The stability that resulted disappeared when God was dethroned by the new liberal order of the Enlightenment. And the lesson of philosophical liberalism’s more wicked economic sibling is that it hits us with a double whammy – it destroys the planet and it destroys human societies by attempting to fill the void with the false religion of money. Radical Islam is attractive to so many precisely because it looks to replace the emptiness occasioned by the denial of man’s transcendental nature. To this extent IS must be considered the child of the monster we have created – a rebuttal of a philosophy which has failed us as much as them. Unfortunately its response has nothing to do with genuine Islam, but that is another story.
While the elimination of IS must be a priority therefore, in fact our greatest challenge is not radical Islam at all, but to downsize our activities and their effect on our planet, to devise a system capable of shrinkage and to recreate communities of souls rather than consumers. None of the measures proposed by our governments in the wake of recent atrocities will increase our safety or allow us to lead more peaceful, harmonious lives. By creating a global Leviathan we are sleepwalking into a policeman’s paradise. Islamic State is very useful for such a purpose, for to focus on the tiger is to divert us from the tyrannosaur.