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April 22, 2008


Thus, once the holy fire of freedom spreads across the land, then radicalism will evaporate. Sunni will hug Shiite. Both will hug Israel. And everyone will sell us sweet sweet crude.

I agree that this version of the neocon/liberal hawk argument is more than a little too simplistic, but I think there's a somewhat more nuanced and credible version that can be put forward - that is, that it's not so much that economic prosperity will cause radicalism to melt away, as marginalize it as a political force. In other words, there will always be a certain number of Islamic fundamentalists prepared to blow up a bus because we recognize Israel, but the credibility, sociopolitical clout, and ability to organize and carry out attacks that such people have will be severely undercut if they're operating amid an Arab public that isn't sympathetic to their goals or methods, and a prosperous and humanely governed Arab public is far less likely to be sympathetic than an economically and politically oppressed one. The fact that there aren't a lot of Jihadis coming out of Oman, Qatar, Turkey, Morocco, Kurdistan, or other relatively prosperous/democratic parts of the Muslim world supports such an assumption, I think. Outside of the Muslim world, the pattern has certainly been that as societies become more materially prosperous, violence and radicalism decline, provided the prosperity is distributed at least somewhat equitably.

This argument for the war was still fatally flawed, of course, since invading and occupying an Arab country has likely undone whatever good will we might have incurred by getting rid of Saddam, and Iraq isn't a society in which a peaceful democracy was likely to take quick or organic root. But I don't think the theory behind it was necessarily incorrect. Marx was wrong, IMO, to conclude that economic prosperity is the sole determinative factor behind social and political institutions, but he wasn't wrong to conclude that it does matter.

The problem with the bit of Marxism you discuss here is economic determinism, not its holding that economics has some effect on people's views. There are some ways in which a free and prosperous country might expect to have fewer radical religious fundamentalists that ought to be unexceptionable: e.g., a country like Pakistan, in which the school system (for the poor) is sometimes nonexistent, and for parents who want their kids to be educated, it's the madrassa or nothing, would presumably end up with fewer radical religious fundamentalists if it had enough money for a better school system.

Beyond that, however, I think that one driver of this sort of thing is a sense that you have to do something about some injustice, and there is nothing you can do within your actual society. The injustice itself can be economic -- e.g., the sight of your parents being consistently humiliated by poverty -- and surely the feeling of absolute powerlessness can be, though having a completely unresponsive political system surely helps.

I think the degree to which this kind of thing explains stuff is varies with levels of affluence: I suspect, on the basis of nothing but hunches, that if you're too poor, radicalism won't be much of an option, but also that above a certain point, diminishing returns set in for this sort of argument. (The lack of power of someone who is middle class as opposed to rich would matter less, I think, than the lack of power of someone who is poor but not desperate as opposed to middle class.)

I'm not overlooking all the evidence that a lot of terrorists are, in fact, educated and middle- or upper-middle class; I just think that this particular mechanism is less likely to be driving them. (In their case, I suspect it's just not economic at all, and has more to do with a sense of cultural humiliation plus feeling as though one fits in nowhere, and needs to create and then cling to an identity, rather than just having one.)

It's hard to discuss how economic causes related to terrorism/political extremism because there are very different dynamics going on depending on the economic state your nation is in.

In advanced European economies, very few people are really poor at the 'don't have enough to eat' level. But there are groups that are at the bottom of the heap and have few prospects of improving their situation, and who as a result are more open to radicalisation, whether it's poor whites turning to violent racist parties or Muslims in French suburbs seeing Islamism as a solution.

My impression is that in the Third World, in contrast, the really poor are too busy trying to scrape a living to have the energy for radicalism. It's those slightly higher up, who have had their ambitions raised by education, but then blocked (by corruption, economic sclerosis etc) who tend to be more liable to be more dangerous in those areas. (And historically, weren't the forerunners of most extremists, the French Revolutionaries, mainly the disillusioned middle classes?)

Publius says:

“I think radical Islamic militants are mad primarily because of events and policy…”

You are wrong Publius. ‘Radical’ Muslims always emerge in the absence of a Dictator (Ataturk, Tito, Shah, Saddam). Your premise falls apart in Thailand, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, and Darfur.

2:10 – 2:99 - 2:104 – 2:171 – 3:28 – 3:48 – 3:73 – 4:64 – 4:89 – 4:101 – 4:144 – 5:51 – 5:57 – 5:59 – 5:60 – 6:106 – 8:55 - 9:5 – 9:29

What is funny about this entire "Marxist" meme is that maybe, if we're lucky, four people have actually read Karl Marx in any depth.

The candidates haven't, I'm quite sure.

There might have been one Pennsylvanian who dove in pretty deep, but I think she moved to LA and became an agent.

Mickey Kaus?

I think there are a few quotations from the carbuncled one in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, which is where I go when I need to seem impressive, because have you tried to read "Grundrisse"?

As to most of the conservative wailing about Obama's "bitterness" comments, I'll bet the complainers once shot a member of the proletariat in their pajamas, but what he was doing in their pajamas they haven't the foggiest.

And here I thought Marx was the guys as made Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots.


You say:

"To clarify....The debate has evolved into a discussion of whether the cultural preferences of bitter Pennsylvanians stem from a lack of economic opportunity. To put the question in more stark Marxist terms — are Pennsylvanians’ cultural preferences (i.e., the superstructure) determined by economics?"

in fact, I think you have muddled, not clarified. What I took Obama to have meant was that, in the absence of economic opportunity, or more precisely, with that line of activity blocked, people would turn to other lines in which they could "do something," have the feeling of being connected to something, their desires leading to something. But the lack of economic opportunity did not CAUSE their belief in the billiard ball/hydraulic or steam engine model of causality that you seem to be using as a caricature. if you're going to pose this in terms of causality, it least update your model into the New millennium.

smargash - i don't actually think obama was talking about this. but the debate has evolved into what i'm discussing, though i could have said that more clearly.

hilz - i didn't mean to say economics plays no role. and i agree with you on the sense of injustice driving it (which could itself take various forms).

i guess my take (after going back and forth on this for years) is that as long as our (and other countries') foreign policy can be plausibly construed as anti-Muslim, then i'm not sure radicalism will decline even if the prosperity increases. and i don't necessarily mean radicalism, but support and sympathy for it as well. in other words, it will remain a political force for the reasons xeynon listed

Speaking of Marx, Barack H. Obama, Barack Junior’s Harvard-trained dad, wrote a short piece titled Problems With Our Socialism. It was a brilliant work by a brilliant mind. EthnoMarxism ©. Some excerpts from the link:

“Can one deny that the African, while not pleased with the system, did not covet the high place given the European or Asian?”

“One need not be a Kenyan to note that nearly all commercial enterprises from small shops in River Road to big shops in Government Road and that industries in the Industrial Areas of Nairobi are mostly owned by Asians and Europeans.”

“How then can we say that we are going to be indiscriminant in rectifying these imbalances? We have to give the African his place…”


Ok, firstly, I think you're giving the neocons way too much credit. Much as they affixed the WMD "facts" to the pre-determined decision to invade, these guys were more than ready to affix "ideology" to their pre-determined PNAC plan.

The idea that freedom would wash away radical islamic militants was a fairy-tale no actual policy expert could believe. But the Bush Admin wanted to invade and set up their new little tax-payer funded private-sector empire. And using key words like "freedom" and "democracy" were great for the sales pitch.

On the flip side, Obama's insistence that Pennsylvanians cling to guns and religion in hard times doesn't necessarily define guns and religion as a superstructure. People need certain pillars of emotional support to survive. Those people without money, who feel financially or socially insecure, will reach out to concepts that increase their stability. Guns give you a feeling of safety when crime rises and you can't afford to move to a gated community. Religion gives you a community organization to cling to when you are at home and unemployed or working so many hours that you don't have time to meet people off the job. Money frees your time and gives you a sense of security. Religion and guns fill the void when money is absent.

This doesn't mean that people won't voluntarily leave church or give up their firearms when they become rich. But people who would normally attend mass - who suddenly have money for baseball tickets - may opt out. People who can move to a better community, or are surrounded by people who appear less desperate for their stuff, don't feel the need to use lethal force to protect themselves. So statistics take a hand and people, when presented with choices, people will decided differently from one another.

The logic of Obama and the neocons couldn't be father apart in this regard.

I think the purveyors of religion and the promoters of right wing cultural values are opportunistic, and that they adapt to fill holes in peoples lives. Economic hardship creates a vacuum that fundamentalism can fill. The post 9/11 fear and vulnerability created another vacuum. The sense of alienation created by our suburban car culture created another vaccuum. For that reason I do see a link between religion and economics, but it's not structural -- its "dialectical." Do I get bonus points for dialectical? It's all I remember from my marx class.

Many neo-cons are Trotsky converts, from Irving Kristol, Max Shactmann, Norman Podhoretz, etc., so it is hardly odd that the core ideology bears a "family resemblance."

Once the ENDS justify the MEANS became a valid approach, as it was with Marx, so it is with neo-cons.

A closer scrutiny of such "thinkers" would have understood only the MEAN justifies the means.


"dialectical" is one of those magical notions like "holy Trinity" that you have to believe in order to understand and understand in order to believe. Just right for selling a cult or bridge of some kind.

but yes, you do get points. Many points. Has to be some reason he went to class right ?

publius: “I think radical Islamic militants are mad primarily because of events and policy —“

This is like an argument about figuring out the reasons why the brioche collapsed in the oven, but leaving yeast (the main fermenting ingredient) out of the equation. And the ‘yeast’ in this loaf of terroristic anger -- is Islamic religious orthodoxy.

If you want to circumscribe Islamic terrorism, you have to circumscribe fundamentalist Islam. Good luck with that.

All of the Islamic terrorist groups, and all their leaders, are sincerely committed (from their perspective) to the fundamentalist Islamic imperative to kill the Infidel, destroy the Crusaders, and wipe out the Heretics -- Sunni or Shiite, depending on which sect is pontificating at the time. This sectarian religious hatred, like the concomitant hatred of Western culture and religion and influence, has nothing to do with statistical policy choices—it’s about irrational religious dogma, and the irrational acts of idiocy that devolve from it.

The sectarian violence in Iraq should make that plain – it doesn’t have anything to do with structure, superstructure, Marxism, dialectics, neo-conservatism – but it has a lot to do with the corrosive poison of religious prejudice – for Christians, Jews, Atheists, Non-believers, and each other.

At this point in history, Islam is the most dogmatic, doctrinaire, conservative, and rigid of the world’s major religions – and that’s not going to change much in this century. The West is going to be fighting with them until you’re old and gray, and your children and grandchildren are too.

Yes, Bill, those Red Africans are a strange, archaic lot, full of implacable xenophobia. If only they could learn from the American factory worker, who responds to the home-grown Islamocommie's complaint of "The three functioning industries we still have here are now owned by Asians and Europeans!" with a hearty "Good for them!"

This sectarian religious hatred, like the concomitant hatred of Western culture and religion and influence, has nothing to do with statistical policy choices—it’s about irrational religious dogma, and the irrational acts of idiocy that devolve from it.

But the vast majority of the terrorists (certainly the UK ones) were not raised as fundamentalist Islamists. (A number were actually converts to Islam). So they had a choice as to whether they became jihadis or whether they became/remained more moderate Muslims. And it is therefore perfectly reasonable to try and discuss why they made that choice. Most Saudi Arabians, most Muslims of all backgrounds do not become jihadis. It is no more irrational to look at the economic and social background of jihadis than it is to look at the background of fundamentalist Christians in the US and conclude that some characteristics (in terms of education, economic status etc) predispose, (but do not destine) one to become a fundamentalist.

The United States is a relatively wealthy country, yet it finds reasons to commit mass death and destruction on other nations all the time.

I suspect more have died by American hands than could ever be killed by the hands of terrorists. We have more money and better weapons.

What's our excuse?

Leaving all claims of elitism, Marxism, or what have you aside, Obama's comments were just not a very good piece of analysis. Guns and, to a somewhat lesser extent, religion are a big part of life in rural PA now, and they have been for a very long time. It has little or nothing to do with the robustness of the economy. The folks there just like to hunt.

I haven't gone and looked it up, but I'll go out on a limb and guess that their voting patterns are, likewise, not significantly different than they were when the area had a strong economy. If anything, they might be a bit more liberal.

Way too much has been made of Obama's comments, and both Kristol and Kaus's analyses have the quality of finding spurious causal relationships that I normally associate with bad undergraduate term papers. Obama's basic analysis was just flawed, and it annoyed a lot of the folks who were its subject.

The neo-cons are probably correct that a thorough social and economic reform of the Middle East would result in a decline in support for Islamic extremism. Where they go astray is in thinking that the first step in achieving that reform is to blow shit up.

That is, perhaps, a mistake akin to the Communist revolutionaries. Not so much Marx, but Lenin.

And the ‘yeast’ in this loaf of terroristic anger -- is Islamic religious orthodoxy.

Between bad governance and militant political religion, I'll let you figure out which is the chicken and which the egg.

Thanks -

You had me until you wrote, "Mickey Kaus raises several interesting points..." ;-)

(Seriously, you're right about the neocons being both wrong and dangerous. I can't think of one point off-hand on which they've been right.)

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