Australian Books

A darkling plain

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics David Martin Jones

Hurst, pp.288, $60.95

Thirty years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes unleashed widespread celebration, especially among their suppressed subjects. The hopes then aroused for the wider world, however, have since faded year by year.

The strategic studies scholar David Martin Jones writes in this important new book how ‘a liberal world view premised on shared norms, open markets, open borders and an abstract commitment to social justice’, along with the end of ideological history, now ‘lies in tatters’.

He concludes, almost plaintively: ‘The progressive world order that lay before us like a land of dreams… mutated into a darkling plain.’ The larger tragedy is that the older established world of prudent democratic values that was challenged by the brash progressive march through the institutions was also for decades brought low, its confidence dissipated.

How did the West wind up in this predicament? Like all proper tragedies, it has principally been one of its own making.

Martin Jones, an associate professor at Queensland University and Visiting Professor in War Studies at King’s College London, cites Hannah Arendt for his book title as she lamented the ‘grandiose ludicrousness’ of those submitting to the call of historical necessity and thus ‘fooled by history, have become the fools of history’.And we’ve been here before. As the author notes, ‘The triumph of the West is invariably accompanied by the fear of impending crisis and doom.’ He forensically tracks how this doom has been solicited and cheered by leading Western thinkers, while liberal democratic values were also contested, from a very different starting point, by the champions of Asian values led by Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohamad and Kishore Mahbubani, who posited that elite guidance – in the form of soft authoritarianism – is essential to ward off chaos.

Philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls, approaching from a very different, radically cosmopolitan, perspective, anticipated that ‘international laws and the norms arrived at in internationally inclusive committees would extend unproblematically from state to globe’ as the former lost its significance, says Martin Jones.

The concomitant ‘tide of history’ found the pursuit of national interests morally defective. The tide theorists ‘conceived their scholarly role as being not to understand the world, but to emancipate the global community.’ This approach required belief in ‘moral equivalence, premised on a radically sceptical relativism.’

Enter, with 9/11, the political religion of Salafist jihadism, or Islamism – a throwback to a state of mind, to ‘a purifying violence intimating utopia’, last seen in the West in millenarian irruptions a few hundred years earlier. International Relations theory and progressive liberal commentary assumed that the Islamist adherents would in time adopt a more agreeable and negotiable position, that as Martin Jones says, ‘Islamic State’s self-styled Caliph Ibrahim would morph into a version of Gerry Adams, but with a better beard.’

Euro-Islamism, Martin Jones says, exploited the fact that interdependence defined this new world, whose emerging elites presumed that communities with separate identities could live together peacefully within a ‘refreshingly postmodern’ framework of intentionally weakened national identities.

Christopher Hitchens wrote of ‘the opening shots in a cultural war on freedom’ that persists. Intolerance of blasphemy has come, for instance, to be firmly tolerated in the West, even as the self-declared religious roots of such Salafism are rejected as irrelevant. The author David Goodhart noted: ‘If you are constantly being told by even moderate Muslim leaders [along with most of the media, legal and academic commentariat, Martin Jones adds] that Britain is a cesspit of Islamophobia and is running a colonial anti-Muslim foreign policy, you might as well conclude “…I would like to give blood”.’ Ultimately, however, Martin Jones observes, the belief that violent Islamists’ rage was triggered by British foreign policy or anti-terror laws, ignored that their contempt applies to all Western democracies, for their moral degeneracy and for their rejection of God. ‘Simply put, while Western liberal tolerance posits a multi-sum game, Islamist assumptions are zero-sum,’ and thus non-negotiable.

Secular modernity lacks the imagination – one might even say empathy – to inhabit the worldview of the religious zealot. Millennial capital, worshipping at the high altar of Davos, has similarly failed to comprehend mass working class alienation – resulting in populism, which like Euro-Islamism, ‘finds the new social media and the new liberal preoccupation with identity particularly congenial for spreading its message.’ And many international relations theorists surprisingly failed to take seriously the true intent of the Chinese Communist Party, hiding in plain sight.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has thus been the other great beneficiary of this Western entropy since the Soviet fall – learning from that fate to adhere uncritically to its version of history, including unyielding veneration of Mao Zedong. Its purposeful suppression of  ‘minorities’, locking away of all human rights lawyers, creation of a pervasive surveillance state, and development of a Belt & Road Initiative that Martin Jones views as ‘eerily resembling’ the Dutch East India Company, did not trouble the Critical Studies movement in Western academe. Its ruling party bore the name communist. It was a leader of the ‘Global South’. Washington views it as its greatest rival. What’s not to like?

The ‘new world order,’ Martin Jones says, consisting of transnational Gnostic elites championing causes ranging from pacifism to environmentalism, sought emancipation and redemption by overthrowing the Western capitalist imperium.But in more recent days, China’s ‘rejuvenation’, Russia’s nationalist surge, the impact of Covid-19 and other core contemporary realities have pointed to the return of geopolitics and of the nation state, and to the fading of the utopian yet grievance-based cosmopolitanism after its brief flowering.

The great writer of that freshly relevant masterpiece The Plague, Albert Camus, viewed the end of history as ‘an arbitrary and terroristic principle.’

Now that end is itself ending, it’s time, Martin Jones suggests cautiously, for the return of the citizen – the free, autonomous but responsible individual whose very existence most threatens Putin’s regime, the PRC’s rise, elitist utopias and history’s fools everywhere.

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