Barbarism and us

26 Dec 2014

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

AT the height of the First World War the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg exclaimed that humanity would soon be confronted with a stark choice — it could save itself by rebuilding society along socialistic lines or continue on its present path and slide inevitably into barbarism. Luxemburg was killed soon afterwards and did not live to see the ‘civilised’ world plunge headlong into the Second World War barely two decades after the end of the first.

After 1945 relative peace has prevailed in the European cradle of capitalist modernity, and there are few who perceive humanity’s predicament in anything like the way Luxemburg and her contemporaries did a century ago. Indeed if humanity does face an ‘existential’ threat, it comes from the ‘barbarians’ that foment ‘terrorism’.

Recently, people in this country have been bombarded with images and ideas reminding us of just how lethal the civilisational threat is, and how it can only be combated on a war footing. Needless to say the vanguard position in this war will be occupied by none other than the military institution.


Some wars are kept off the radar.


It is the same in virtually all countries of today’s world. The military-industrial complex is, in cahoots with the corporate media, acquiring unprecedented surveillance and coercive powers in the name of defending ‘civilisation’. It is reasonable, then, to identify what is it that unites this 21st-century ‘civilisation’.

First, war is as constitutive of today’s capitalist world-system as it was 100 years ago. For the most part information-consuming publics are busy with the ‘good’ wars being waged against the enemies of ‘civilisation’. The not-so-pretty wars are kept off the public radar while the inconvenient truths about the links between the forces of ‘civilisation’ and the bad guys are simply swept under the carpet.

Second, there are exponentially more ways and means to make money due to the explosion of finance and the parallel ‘information revolution’. Profit-making is an increasingly transnational affair and while the financial crash of 2008 slowed the train somewhat, the trend is away from the production of real goods and services towards speculative financial services and an entertainment industry based on ‘virtual reality’.

Third, the individual is more and more freed from the collective constraints of the past. This transformation has been ongoing in Western countries for longer than elsewhere but the rest of the world is ‘catching up’ fast. The process is certainly changing the life-situation of women and other historically oppressed social forces (such as caste groups). But while ‘free’ individuals do come together for collective causes, parochialism and alienation are increasingly dominant trends.

Fourth, Planet Earth — the source of all civilisation as we know it — is being depleted at a completely unsustainable rate. The relentless drive to accumulate capital and satiate the ‘needs’ of leisure-consuming populations are together dramatically affecting millennia-strong eco-systems and putting the very future of marine, plant, animal and ultimately human, life, at risk.

That Rosa Luxemburg’s refrain ‘socialism or barbarism’ is considered an anachronism in spite of the above-mentioned empirical truths has as much to do with dominant intellectual and political trends since the 1980s as our collective hubris: many amongst us probably believe, in our heart of hearts, that science, technology and ‘rationality’ will ultimately help us transcend social and ecological constraints to further development.

It is this ‘rationality’ that we claim distinguishes us from the ‘barbarian’ hordes that kill and maim innocents, impose their religious edicts and threaten to take us back into the stone ages. Yet our rationality also entails ignorance — conscious or otherwise — of the actually existing political economy of capitalist ‘civilisation’.

As for those progressives who challenge the contemporary binary of civilisation and barbarism that underlies the so-called age of terror, it is imperative to avoid romanticising the latest emergent global power, China, as a prospective beacon of post-capitalist reordering. The Chinese economic explosion of the past few decades has been based on a rabid model of accumulation that represents nothing like an alternative to the hegemonic tendency.

Yes the coming together of the so-called BRICS bloc of countries does represent a possible realignment of global economic and political power, and this realignment could generate temporary respite for peoples and regions continuously subject to the vice-like grip of Western imperialism. But there can be no pretence that China or BRICS will stave off the contradictions of the capitalist ‘civilisation’ that we are so intent on celebrating.

In the final analysis we or our future generations will certainly have to make a choice. We can continue to beat the dead horse of ‘terrorism’ for as long as we like, and may even claim one day to have ‘defeated’ it, but we cannot escape the spectre of a descent into barbarism. Not until we accept the truths about our ‘civilisation’.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2014