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Obama is part of the problem

War rages in the North-West Frontier and the poor are embracing the Taliban because they at least fi

Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian writer, Marxist and guerilla revolutionary, could have been talking about Pakistan’s present-day civil war in the North-West Frontier Province when he said: “It is necessary to turn political crises into armed crisis by performing violent actions that will force those in power to transform the military situation into a poli­tical situation. That will alienate the masses, who, from then on, will revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things.”

Pakistan’s government, in the small league when it comes to the brain department, does

not understand that it has just entered into a guerrilla war in the Swat Valley and surrounding

areas, such as Buner, Mingora and Bajaur. The prime minister, Yousef Raza Gilani, who exists solely for photo opportunities as opposed to

policy decisions, has declared a military offensive to halt the growth of the Taliban along

Pakistan’s northern frontier. This comes after the government ordered the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz, one of the ideological masterminds behind the infamous occupation of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007 – a siege that ended bloodily when the Pakistan army stormed in and recaptured the building by force.

In addition, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, who on a recent state visit to Washington pronounced himself “commander-in-chief”, unilaterally declared sharia law in the Swat Valley. Behaving in the manner of well-heeled south Asian dictators past, Zardari did not allow the citizens of the Swat Valley a vote. He did not call for a referendum. He simply capitulated to Pakistan’s indigenous Taliban.

Now, the country’s internally displaced population, estimated at one million-strong after US predator drones started flying freely over Pakistani skies last year, has shot up in the course

of just a few recent days. The United Nations is reporting the creation of an additional 500,000 refugees since the government began its own airstrikes against the people of the North-West Frontier Province. Not that this is necessarily disturbing for the government in Islamabad: in the same breath as Prime Minister Gilani declared war against his people, he asked international donors to pony up some cash to deal with the imminent human fallout from the crisis.

The US House appropriations committee has approved a speedy $1.9bn of aid for Pakistan, aid that it assumes will go towards the cause of our growing problem with internally displaced people. It won’t. This government’s history of corruption is well known. Unlike Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh, who are accused

of graft in the measly hundred-thousand-dollar range, obtained through kickbacks from government contracts, Zardari’s record is the stuff of legend and sits somewhere between two and three billion dollars, allegedly looted from the national treasury during his late wife Benazir Bhutto’s two terms in power.

Zardari’s sometimes ally/sometimes opposition leader Nawaz Sharif also allegedly worked in the big-stakes ballpark when it came to corruption. It doesn’t take an exceptionally sceptical mind to doubt where this frantic US handout of almost $2bn is going to end up.

Pakistan is not going to win this round of conflict, not with this government in charge, not with the army battling an entrenched guerrilla force that is fighting on this terrain, with the added benefit of doing so in neighbourhoods that the guerrillas grew up in and in towns where their families live. The Pakistani Taliban, frightening as they are, are not an army fighting on

the orders of US Admiral Mike Mullen; they are defending a cause that they believe in. Fundamentalism does that to a soldier. Pakistan is

going to lose out for many reasons and President Barack Obama’s complicity will not change

anything.

So far, the “Yes We Can” president has strictly upheld George W Bush’s modus operandi when dealing with Pakistan. The evidence is frustratingly damning: he signalled to Pakistan and the world during the White House buddyfest, which saw Zardari at his most unctuous, that he and his government will prop up their men in the region; that they will do so with “see no evil”

billion-dollar handouts and military support; and that, faced with fostering democracy in Pakistan, the US will always come down in support of the strongmen instead of the people.

Asif Ali Zardari is unelected. He was brought to the presidency in the same way as General Pervez Musharraf was – by the vote of a reliant and powerless parliament. Zardari did not stand for election in 2008. He does not represent a

constituency, and he does not have the mandate of the people. Ditto Sharif who, unlike Zardari, was disqualified from contesting elections.

Yet this did not seem to get in the way of Obama’s pronouncement of generous support for the government.

Perhaps, as Pakistan “fights for its survival” (the catchphrase for this war), this is a moment for political pause. Two weeks ago I met a man who had just returned from South Waziristan. I asked him about the situation in his home

village and he complained about the arbitrary and constant US drone attacks. After telling

me that his house had been all but obliterated when a drone missed its mark, he continued, more upbeat, “But the situation there is improving. The law-and-order situation is very good, better than Karachi.”

He told me about the case of a young

girl who had been molested by three men after being kidnapped from the market near her house. When the Taliban

forces discovered the crime, they not only rescued the girl and returned her to her home, but also took care of the three men.

“They shot them,” my visitor told me, impressed that some form of retributive justice had been served, quickly and easily.

I shifted in my seat and, uncomfortably, disagreed that what had happened was the right outcome. For one thing, I said, women have been suffering greatly under the rule of these extremists. “Oh they’re fine,” he said, waving a hand

in the air. “They are grateful for the fact that they finally have basic justice and services, you know. They don’t suffer year-long court delays and mercenary police like we do in Karachi.”

So, Carlos Marighella was spot-on. The solution does not lie in the army fighting its own civilians, generating more hatred for a force that has been acting on the orders of foreign powers for the past eight years and alienating the people whom they are sworn to protect in the process. The solution does not lie in the United States funding and propping up corrupt and illegitimate governments in the face of incompetent leadership and unrest across the country. The

solution is not more money.

The solution lies, rather, in recognising that the residents of Swat didn’t choose the Taliban. They did not vote for sharia law. The Taliban are only there because they built roads that had been unpaved for decades. They provided education, for boys at least, when the government schools failed millions of local children. They opened medical centres when the government hospitals shut down because of lack of funds. They meted out justice when the courts started protecting the government and not the people.

It’s corruption, stupid. It’s the force we need

to be fighting now; it’s the head of the monster, the wellspring of the Taliban’s strength in Pakistan. I for one don’t plan on putting on a burqa any time soon. l

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism