Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Sunday, August 25, 2002
Paul Cella points my attention to a really good piece in Policy Review: Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology by Lee Harris. To summarize the argument: most supporters of the current war on al Qaeda (e.g. Victor Davis Hanson) and most of the opponents (e.g. Noam Chomsky) share the assumption that the massacres of 9-11 were the opening salvo in a war. That is to say, they were operations undertaken to achieve concrete objectives. Harris argues that this may not be the case; that the terror attacks may have been ends in themselves, undertaken not to achieve concrete objectives but to make the perpetrators (and their surviving comrades) feel like victors. That the attacks were, fundamentally, theater rather than policy, the outgrowth of a psychological fantasy ideology rather than a logical ideology aimed at achieving power.

I'm going to quote the heart of his argument at length:

In reviewing these fantasy ideologies, especially those associated with Nazism and Italian fascism, there is always the temptation for an outside observer to regard their promulgation as the cynical manipulation by a power-hungry leader of his gullible followers. This is a serious error, for the leader himself must be as much steeped in the fantasy as his followers: He can only make others believe because he believes so intensely himself.

But the concept of belief, as it is used in this context, must be carefully understood in order to avoid ambiguity. For us, belief is a purely passive response to evidence presented to us — I form my beliefs about the world for the purpose of understanding the world as it is. But this is radically different from what might be called transformative belief — the secret of fantasy ideology. For here the belief is not passive, but intensely active, and its purpose is not to describe the world, but to change it. It is, in a sense, a deliberate form of make-believe, but one in which the make-believe is not an end in itself, but rather the means of making the make-believe become real. In this sense it is akin to such innocently jejune phenomena as “The Power of Positive Thinking,” or even the little engine that thought it could. To say that Mussolini, for example, believed that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire does not mean that he made a careful examination of the evidence and then arrived at this conclusion. Rather, what is meant by this is that Mussolini had the will to believe that fascist Italy would revive the Roman Empire.

The allusion to William James’s famous essay “The Will to Believe” is not an accident, for James exercised a profound influence on the two thinkers essential to understanding both Italian fascism in particular and fantasy ideology in general — Vilfredo Pareto and Georges Sorel. All three men begin with the same assumption: If human beings are limited to acting only on those beliefs that can be logically and scientifically demonstrated, they could not survive, simply because this degree of certainty is restricted only to mathematics and the hard sciences — which, by themselves, are not remotely sufficient to guide us through the world as it exists. Hence, human beings must have a large set of beliefs that cannot be demonstrated logically and scientifically — beliefs that are therefore irrational as judged by the hard sciences.

Yet the fact that such beliefs cannot be justified by science does not mean that they may not be useful or beneficial to the individual or to the society that holds them. For James, this meant primarily the religious beliefs of individuals: Did a man’s religious beliefs improve the quality of his personal life? For Pareto, however, the same argument was extended to all beliefs: religious, cultural, and political.

Both James and Pareto viewed non-rational belief from the perspective of an outside observer: They took up the beliefs that they found already circulating in the societies in which they lived and examined them in light of whether they were beneficial or detrimental to the individuals and the societies that entertained them. As a botanist examines the flora of a particular region — he is not interested in creating new flowers, but simply in cataloguing those that already exist — so, too, James and Pareto were exclusively interested in already existing beliefs, and certainly not in producing new ones.

But this was not enough for Sorel. Combining Nietzsche with William James, Sorel discovered the secret of Nietzsche’s will to power in James’s will to believe. James, like Pareto, had shown that certain spontaneously occurring beliefs enabled those who held these beliefs to thrive and to prosper, both as individuals and societies. But if this were true of spontaneously occurring beliefs, could it not also be true of beliefs that were deliberately and consciously manufactured?

This was a radical innovation. For just as naturally existing beliefs could be judged properly only in terms of the benefits such beliefs brought about in the lives of those who believed in them, the same standard could now be applied to beliefs that were deliberately created in order to have a desired effect on those who came to believe in them. What would be important about such “artificially inseminated” beliefs — which Sorel calls myths — was the transformative effect such myths would have on those who placed their faith in them and the extent to which such ideological make-believe altered the character and conduct of those who held them — and certainly not whether they were true.

Sorel’s candidate for such a myth — the general strike — never quite caught on. But his underlying insight was taken up by Mussolini and Italian fascism, and with vastly greater sensitivity to what is involved in creating such galvanizing and transformative myths in the minds of large numbers of men and women. After all, it is obvious that not just any belief will do and that, furthermore, each particular group of people will have a disposition, based on history and character, to entertain one set of beliefs more readily than another. Mussolini assembled his Sorelian myth out of elements clearly designed to catch the imagination of his time and place — a strange blend of Imperial Roman themes and futurist images.

Yet even the most sensitively crafted myth requires something more in order to take root in the imagination of large populations — and this was where Mussolini made his great innovation. For the Sorelian myth to achieve its effect it had to be presented as theater. It had to grab the spectators and make them feel a part of the spectacle. The Sorelian myth, in short, had to be embodied in a fantasy — a fantasy with which the “audience” could easily and instantly identify. The willing suspension of disbelief, which Coleridge had observed in the psychology of the normal theatergoer, would be enlisted in the service of the Sorelian myth; and in the process, it would permit the myth-induced fantasy to override the obvious objections based on mundane considerations of reality. Thus twentieth century Italians became convinced that they were the successors of the Roman Empire in the same way that a member of a theater audience is convinced that Hamlet is really talking to his deceased father’s ghost.

Once again, it is a mistake to see in all of this merely a ploy — a cynical device to delude the masses. In all fantasy ideologies, there is a point at which the make-believe becomes an end in itself. This fact is nowhere more clearly exhibited than in the Italian conquest of Ethiopia.

Any attempt to see this adventure in Clausewitzian terms is doomed to fail: There was no political or economic advantage whatsoever to be gained from the invasion of Ethiopia. Indeed, the diplomatic disadvantages to Italy in consequence of this action were tremendous, and they were in no way to be compensated for by anything that Italy could hope to gain from possessing Ethiopia as a colony.

Why invade, then? The answer is quite simple. Ethiopia was a prop — a prop in the fantasy pageant of the new Italian Empire — that and nothing else. And the war waged in order to win Ethiopia as a colony was not a war in the Clausewitzian sense — that is to say, it was not an instrument of political policy designed to induce concessions from Ethiopia, or to get Ethiopia to alter its policies, or even to get Ethiopia to surrender. Ethiopia had to be conquered not because it was worth conquering, but because the fascist fantasy ideology required Italy to conquer something — and Ethiopia fit the bill. The conquest was not the means to an end, as in Clausewitzian war; it was an end in itself. Or, more correctly, its true purpose was to bolster the fascist collective fantasy that insisted on casting the Italians as a conquering race, the heirs of Imperial Rome.

To be a prop in someone else’s fantasy is not a pleasant experience, especially when this someone else is trying to kill you, but that was the position of Ethiopia in the fantasy ideology of Italian fascism. And it is the position Americans have been placed in by the quite different fantasy ideology of radical Islam.

As a major, major fan of William James (and Pareto is pretty great, too; I'm not familiar with Sorel), I find this analysis particularly persuasive. For Harris, the import of his anaylsis for our conduct of the war is simple. If al Qaeda is not a rational actor, but operating on the basis of fantasy, then it cannot be fought to the point merely of victory (ending the enemy's ability to do serious harm, or achieving the enemy's surrender) but must be fought to the point of extermination. That indeed follows logically from his argument. But I want to tease out a couple of distinctions that I think are important for the conduct of the war, and that somewhat qualify his conclusions.

First, I would agree that 9-11 was an act of theater, with al Qaeda as the director and actors in the drama, and America's symbols as the set and props. But who was the audience? There are three possibilities, not mutually exclusive: America, the Muslim world, and al Qaeda itself. Harris, while surely agreeing that all may be true in part, argues that the primary audience for 9-11 was al Qaeda itself. I don't think that is quite right; I think the primary audience was the Muslim world. I definitely agree that one purpose of the attacks was the self-glorification of the attackers and their comrades, an effort to convince themselves of their own power and importance. As such, they would be comparable to, say, the crimes of the Bader Meinhof gang or the Weathermen: violence that could not possibly be connected with political objectives, violence undertaken for the sake of violence itself, undertaken by a group of people utterly out of touch with reality. And its important to note that these terrorists did nothing to move their larger societies in their favor. But I think Hitler's beer-hall putsch, or the spectacular acts of terror perpetrated by the PLO through the 1970s and 1980s are better examples. These acts were not, in themselves, capable of catapulting the perpetrators into power. But they were part of a strategy intended ultimately to achieve just that, by means of infecting the larger society that the perpetrators sought to take over with the fantasy that already governed the perpetrators' behavior.

This has consequences for how we proscute the war. If al Qaeda is talking primarily to itself, then the overwhelming focus of the war should be on preventing that group from gaining additional military assets, surrounding and isolating it, and physically eliminating its members. If, on the other hand, al Qaeda is talking primarily to a much larger audience of Muslims, then a major part of the war should be devoted to innoculating the larger Muslim world from infection. That effort, in turn, must involve our own use of theater: to impress on the Muslim world the power and resilience of America, and the folly of al Qaeda. We would have to do this because if we didn't and al Qaeda's theatrical attacks had their intended effect, we'd see copy-cat organizations emerging throughout the Muslim world, a disease metastasizing too quickly for us to pursue a policy of cordon-and-eliminate.

Second, and more fundamentally, I would like to draw two distinctions that cut across the fantasist/rationalist division that Harris makes. They are: between radical and conservative powers, and between good and evil powers.

I've talked about the distinction between radical and conservative powers before, but I want to elaborate a bit here.

Possibly because I work with options, I tend to look at the whole world from the perspective of an options trader. (And I wind up sounding a lot like Malcolm Gladwell.) A holder of options stands to benefit enormously from a large positive move, but has a limited downside in the event of a large adverse move. Therefore, a holder of options wants the volatility of the underlying asset to increase; this increases the magnitude of potential positive events, but doesn't change the magnitude of loss if negative events transpire, and thus increases the holder's expected gain. Because of this, even events that decrease the expected value of the underlying asset (for example, events that make negative outcomes more likely) may be positive events for an options holder if they increase the volatility of the underlying asset sufficiently that the increase in potential value of upside events is great enough to overwhelm the greater likelihood of downside events. Finally, all options expire on a given date, so options holders need their hoped-for events to happen within a given span of time. The more time goes by, the less value their options have.

In options speak, the holder of options is "long gamma" and "short theta." (Gamma is the derivative of delta, which is in turn the amount that the value of an option changes with each incremental change in the value of the underlying asset. If you are long gamma, that means that your exposure to the underlying asset increases as the asset appreciates, and decreases as the asset depreciates. In other words, your gains accelerate as the asset goes up, and your losses decelerate as the asset goes down - in the case of a call option, in any event. Theta, meanwhile, is the rate of change of the value of the position with the incremental passage of time. If you are short theta, that means that your position value declines over time. Anyone who borrows money is short theta, because he is paying money every day until he pays off the loan; anyone who lends money is long theta.)

Radical powers are like holders of options, while conservative powers are like sellers of options. Radical powers have little to lose, but could benefit greatly from the right kind of change, if the change is sufficiently dramatic. Absent such a change, the radical power will decay and eventually collapse. In many cases, therefore, it makes sense for these powers to instigate change of almost any sort, even change that is objectively self-destructive, because by destabilizing the situation a radical power may create opportunities to dramatically increase its power, which is worth more than the objective loss of power caused by the action.

What I want to stress is that this is rational behavior on the part of the radical power. Thus, al Qaeda's leaders, behaving rationally, may have reasoned that it was very likely that they would lose their base in Afghanistan as a result of the attacks on America. But, they may have said, Afghanistan is of limited value; indeed, we've gotten about as much as we can possibly get out of it, having trained a generation of terror leaders and planted them abroad. We've run the country into the ground economically, and eventually we'll face resistance, either from within our own ranks or from the warlords or from ethnic minorities - memories of how we ended civil war will fade, and the reality of Afghanistan as it is will set in. So we need to radically increase our power. It's worth the likely loss of Afghanistan if a dramatic attack on America causes a revolution in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan - or if America's own invasion of Afghanistan achieves this. Even if the odds are that we'll reduce our own power and strengthen America's hand by these attacks, the attacks will unsettle the situation, and we'll be in a position to seize any opportunities that present themselves.

Similarly, Yasser Arafat heads a radical power that rationally reasoned that war - even a war they were more likely to lose than win - served their interests more than peace. Peace would mean confronting the degree to which the promises that the PLO made have fallen short of reality; peace would mean facing a destroyed economy, a rump mini-state utterly dependent on its neighbors, Israel and Jordan, and the utter loss of international significance. Far better to launch a war, and hope that instability will present opportunities to radically increase one's power - even if the likeliest outcome is the loss of what power one has.

That's the rational reasoning of radical powers. Conservative powers are in the opposite position. Rather than holders of options, they are like sellers of options, or holders of debt. Every day that goes by without dramatic change benefits them, because their assets are income-producing not wasting assets. Anything that radically upsets the international order has a good chance of hurting them - and even if it's more likely to help them than hurt, it's unlikely to help them overwhelmingly because of their already strong position, but it could do serious damage to valuable assets.

I want to stress that this divide between radical and conservative powers does not correspond to the difference between good and evil powers. Saudi Arabia, a nasty regime since its inception, has historically been a conservative power. Any change is dangerous to the regime, which has valuable, income-producing assets (oil fields, control of Mecca) and little to gain from disorder. The weaker Saudi Arabia becomes internally, however, due to population growth and productivity declines as well as the sheer boredom of its effectivelyimprisoned subjects, the more radical the regime must become, and therefore the more dangerous to itself as well as to others. On the flip side, from the beginnings of the yishuv to 1967, Israel was a radical power. Israel faced enormous odds against its success from the beginning, and there were strong forces in the international system arrayed against it. World War I resulted in the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate; World War II, however devastating it was for the Jewish people as a whole, ultimately benefitted Israel both by increasing its Jewish population and creating a unique political context in which the international community would bestow its blessing on the new state. After 1948, the state was acutely vulnerable to attacks from the outside, which could be conducted with minimal cost to the aggressor states. Israel therefore engaged in aggressive cross-border reprisals, and two dramatic wars (the Sinai Campaign and the 6-Day War) that were defensive in origin but aggresive in their conduct. But none of this means that Israel was an evil power; in fact, all through the period of the yishuv and down to the present, Israel has been extremely sensitive to the moral restraints on warfare, certainly in compared with its neighbors but also in comparison with many western powers (Algeria, anyone?) who have been apt to criticize Israel for its policies.

The participation in a fantasy ideology is orthogonal to both of these other considerations: both to the radicalism of the power and to its evil. I offer two examples as proof. First, Israel was, in addition to being a radical power, one dominated by a fantasy ideology. If the founders of the yishuv had ever considered the odds, Israel would never have come into being. Zionists came to Israel, settled the land and built the state as participants in a host of collective fantasies. Had the Zionists merely sought refuge from anti-Semitic Russia or, later, Germany, they would have been focused on trying to get to America - as many of their non-Zionist fellows were and did. Socialist, nationalist and religious fantasies - or, to use a less pejorative term, myths - powered the enterprise of Zionism from the beginning. And again, this does not make Zionism an evil enterprise by any means.

As a second example, I point to the British Empire. As David Cannadine argues persuasively in his book, Ornamentalism, a major factor both animating the British Empire and enabling its success was the theater and pageantry of it all. This was both consciously and unconsciously designed to make best use of the existing traditional authorities in the societies Britain sought indirectly to rule, but it was equally consciously and unconsciously designed as a project to occupy the Tory elements in British society with less and less obvious place in an increasingly bourgeois, mercantile society. The fantasy of a feudal order served the conservative cause of social stability in the midst of economic at home and stable, inexpensive rule abroad.

So fantasy ideologies can serve both evil and good powers, and both radical and conservative powers. As important as it is to recognize that we are up against an enemy whose political strategies are at least as much theatrical as Clauswitzean, and that the enemy may seek disordered change for its own sake rather than as part of a directed and controlled plan, it is more important for us to remember that the enemy is evil. Harris calls Bush's identification of the enemy as "evildoers" as a bit of fantasy ideology of our own - and he means that positively. And he's right about that. But it's also accurate. We will be tempted to decide that our war is being waged against some other force that caused this evil - religion, either in general or Islam specifically; or poverty and underdevelopment; or undemocratic regimes; or what have you. But we shouldn't lose sight of the basic value judgement: the people who perpetrated the massacres of 9-11 are evil. Those who help them are evil. And if we can't wipe evil off the planet, we should have no compunction about any actions we take to destroy it utterly when it threatens us.