MIKHAIL Bakunin in the mid-19th century advised the Great Powers to beware of small states — not that he wouldn’t have been happy to shove any Great Power off the nearest steep cliff.

At the time the notorious Russian anarchist had in mind haughty monarchical Europe. Little Serbia would become the tinderbox igniting the First World War and bringing about the collapse of several empires.

British journalist David Hirst published a fine book updating this theme for the new millennium. Hirst deals mainly with Lebanon, where the mighty state of Israel discovered how small it really is, but also with Tunisia, another diminutive state where a movement erupted that may be a catalyst for demolishing US neo-imperial designs in the Arab world.

This startling event began when young Tunisian Mohammad Bouazizi set himself ablaze in protest after suffering terrible mistreatment by routinely lawless authorities. No television pundit could have imagined that so modest a man would become the spark for a revolutionary surge. Egypt followed Tunisia. Popular revolts in Tunis and Tahrir Square send shivers down the spines of leaders in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain and, not least, Washington.

When America displaced the English and French in these vital areas of influence after the Second World War it instinctively backed local autocrats, the favourites being the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Israel was the cherished US ally, and so Egypt and Jordan became clients on which the US and Israel depended for regional stability in their favour.

Behold the results. The invasion of Iraq on trumped-up charges wound up spreading Iranian influence there. Israel’s assaults on Lebanon propelled the ascent of Hezbollah. Egypt exploded. Truculent factions in Israel and America who agitated for years for a massive sneak attack on Iran now find their daft scheme unlikely.

Frightened dictators in the region decry fundamentalist threats, and western leadership employ this scare tactic to try to cow their citizens. Yet Islamic Iran never dispatched terrorists to the West, rather it was Muslim states friendly to America, such as Saudi Arabia, where terrorists originated.

Besides small states, Bakunin might have added the useful tip that Great Powers should beware of small organisations too. The Bolsheviks in 1917 for one. WikiLeaks for another. Citizens cannot control their governments if they do not know what schemes they get up to and why. While authorities claim they cannot operate effectively in public view, one can probably count on the fingers of one hand the defensible instances of government deceiving the public ‘for its own good.

WikiLeaks revelations have exerted a salutary effect in the Middle East. For western observers it’s worth being reminded that public and private organisations that don’t want you prying into their business have no compunctions about prying into your business.

The ‘hacktivist’ community (including Bradley F. Manning and Julian Assange) deserve a collective Nobel Prize for Peace for their radical democratic acts. The alleged damage that exposure of these secrets entails, even if granted, can never approach the cumulative harm of the crimes committed under official secrecy. Why so many secrets anyway? Are officials paranoid?

Well, a powerful adage about politics, according to streetwise psychiatry, is that leftists tend towards paranoia while right-wingers indulge in projecting their innermost desires outward onto opponents: ‘We don’t want to rule the world, they do.’ So leftists sometimes may perceive foes at work when they aren’t there while the Right cannot help but detect its dominant motive — expanding its privileges — being enacted by opponents, and only by them.

For the Right too, whoever acquires the most toys wins even if the process brings their palaces down around their ears. They can imagine no one operating on motives other than selfishness and so they act ruthlessly. They can’t let paranoia alone either. They clearly revel in pretending to be threatened by populist mobs when it is they and their market doctrines that truly threaten the livelihoods of the majority of the population.

You don’t have to be leftist to be paranoid. Fear of the Right is a pervasive factor in politics. President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War was not nearly as concerned about the blue-jeaned antiwar opposition as he was about the Right with all its money and power, and how it would react to the ‘humiliation’ of withdrawal. So withdrawal was ruled out.

Neither Johnson nor successor Nixon wanted to be the first US president to lose a war. The ferocious Right would go ballistic. Eventually, though, the war’s high cost harmed enough of the tycoon class such that they agreed, indeed demanded, that the US get out.

There seems to be no antiwar pressure of the same kind going on today in America where the wealthy Right is disconnected, where their prosperity, and the health of the US economy, do not depend on one another anymore. From 1983 to 2007 in the US the top 20 per cent grabbed 89 per cent of growth in wealth. The Right fully expects to make everyone else pay for its own profligate behaviour.

We cannot know what is going on inside Obama’s head but his deeds — his abject efforts to placate implacable Republicans — may disclose such a paranoid streak. Obama is acting on another psychological principle noted by Aristotle: “No one grows angry with a person on whom there is no prospect of taking vengeance, and we feel comparatively little anger, or none at all, with those who are much our superiors in power.”

The ‘smart thing’, according to this mean logic, is to pick the pockets of the little guy, not prosecute criminal mega institutions. But in the US in the city of Madison, Wisconsin today, where an ultra-Right governor recklessly conducts open class warfare on the American people, the spirit of Tahrir and Tunis is producing a benign blowback in the form of mass popular resistance to the Right’s agenda. The West is beginning to appreciate the East’s stellar example.

Opinion

Editorial

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