I’ve taken to reading the slimmed down Time, which covers few stories, but at least one in depth. In the May 23rd issue I was impressed with Rana Foroohar’s cover story, ‘Capitalism’. Perhaps under the influence of Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ that made all the best-seller lists, it dispassionately lays out the system’s crimes, revealing in simple language how the world made its way to the disastrous place it’s in today. After noting that fewer than half of American adults call themselves capitalists, or support the capitalist economic system, it lays out the role of Wall Street in the current world economic debacle.
Starting in the 1970’s and accelerating from the nineteen-eighties onwards, banks became more interested in using money to create more money than using it to back businesses, inventing a myriad of ‘financial tools’ to achieve this. “Debt is the life-blood of [this business model], while rising levels of debt and credit levels stoke financial instability”, Foroohar writes.
In a world economic system in which machines increasingly replace humans and investing is replaced by high-stake games, ever fewer jobs are created. This brings us to the May issue of Harpers, where George Packer writes about “Exporting Jihad” from Tunisia, the former French North African colony where the Arab Spring took off in 2011. The present head of state, Mohamed Ghannouchi, is known to students of Islam as a serious reformist thinker, yet six or seven thousand young Tunisians, male and female, have left to wage Jihad. According to Packer, it’s because “by raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive.…”
Describing the suburban town of Douar Hicher, portrayed in a two-page spread as a desolate place “whose streets are narrow and rutted, with rains cut through the middle”, Packer notes that “educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the country creates so few professional jobs.” The same frustration that drove secular Tunisian youth into the streets in 2011 is now driving them toward jihad, because in a world economy, economic solutions cannot be found in one country alone (just as communism could not be built in one country isolated from the rest of the world, as was the case of the Soviet Union). But Packer also mentions ‘spiritual emptiness’ as an emotion driving the young, especially women, to jihad.
’Spiritual emptiness’ is the subject of the French bestseller ‘Submission’ by Michel Houellebeq, who imagines his country electing a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as president in order to avoid a far-right win. The novel mainly chronicles the sexual frustrations of a forty-some single academic, resolved when he converts to Islam and can look forward to having three wives. Although his spiritual emptiness is reflected in the subject of his research, a nineteenth-century author who ultimately converts to Catholicism, the inner despair of French society is mentioned only casually. However, a novel in which contemporary political actors are mentioned by name surely mirrors the current zeitgeist…
Back to Tunisia again, its oscillation between secular and moderate Islamic governments is elucidated in the April 7th New York Review of Books. Malise Ruthven’s “Inside Obedient Muslim Minds” is the most far-reaching explanation of the Sunnia/Shia antagonism that I have read. It is known to have started shortly after the Prophet’s death and to center on the dispute between rationality and blind faith, but Ruthven, who is a student of Islam, reveals the facts behind it: Early Muslims attributed their ability to conquer a good part of the ancient world to God’s support, causing those we now call Salafists to believe that devotion to the Prophet’s precepts guarantees success. (Currently, the theology of conquest, or ‘manifest success’ is illustrated in videos of ISIS fighters charging across the Arab world in their white-pick-ups, arms and banners raised.)
Very differently, says Ruthven, far from experiencing heady victories, Islam’s Shiite minority, like Jews and Christians, have historically had to adopt to situations of failure, persecution or exile, confirming their belief that God intended men to be rational, thinking creatures, able to cope with misfortune. In 1979, the Shiites of Iran used a socialist-tinged ideology of liberation from Western domination to forge a successful revolution and a religiously-inspired government that has lasted for almost four decades, gradually becoming less radical and reclaiming Persia’s historical role in central Asia. Very differently, the Sunni Arab world’s participation in the Western economic system lead to a gradually worsening situation: finance having abandoned ‘business’, the developing world, like the first world, is increasingly unable to provide jobs, notwithstanding its desperate needs.
The turn of disaffected Muslim youth unable to enjoy the fruits of the modern world from secularly-oriented demonstrations to jihad brings us back to the lack of inner satisfaction derived from the pursuit of ‘stuff’. An RT documentary recently quoted a Tunisian youth saying “Now that we can have a few things, we want it all”.
The ‘pursuit of happiness’ immortalized by the authors of the American declaration of Independence gradually led to what President Vladimir Putin calls the degeneracy of western culture. While twentieth century Middle Eastern rulers such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi or Hafez al-Assad modernized their countries, there as well as in the west, technological conquests ultimately led to a hollowing out of inner life, recognized most dramatically by Salafists. And the seemingly incomprehensible hesitancy of many lesser educated Americans between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is part of the same phenomenon that causes European working class voters to desert the Communist Party for the National Front.
Under the label of ‘post-modernism’, the far-right not only condemns sexual liberation in favor of traditional family values, it favors ‘nativism’ (an extreme form of nationalism which only recognizes the ‘native-born’ American, French or German). The rise of nativist groups across Europe is related to the influx of Muslim refugees fleeing the financialization of their societies promulgated by Wall Street (with help from the IMF, the World Bank and Brussels) via ‘reforms’ that dismantle a century of working-class social achievements, as is the case presently in France. When bankers are not lending money to entrepreneurs, business seeks savings in longer working hours, lower pay and easy firings.
In a little noted irony, Europe and the Third World it previously failed to support, are experiencing the same cruel paradox: instead of flourishing, both have evolved into undemocratic vehicles for the expansion of international capital paid for by an increasingly desolate people.