Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

The French Revolution: The Reign of Terror, 1793-1794

The trial and execution of Louis XVI had pushed revolutionary France into a new stage. The 168px-louis_xvi_-_executionurban poor and their leaders had rejected compromise with the old regime; the next step was to tear it down. In the National Convention, the radical republicans like the Robespierre-led Jacobins created bodies meant to turn the unleashing of social tensions into state-directed operations. In March 1793, the Convention established a Committee of Public Safety with a remit for guiding the persecution of political offenders. This occurred just as regular people (especially those in Paris) were becoming more militant. They were anxious about French defeats against Austria and Prussia as well as royalist rebellion elsewhere in the country. The Jacobins were at least taking concrete steps to save the Revolution, whereas the more moderate Girondins, although technically in the majority, had grown out of touch with the public sentiment. Given the stakes, there soon arose a broad coalition of forces eager to remove the Girondins from power and even punish them, as many had voted to spare King Louis from the death penalty for treason – an opening to a charge of clandestine loyalties to the unpopular monarchy.

The Fall of the Girondins

The press spread the charges that the Girondins were traitors. In response, the Girondins sought to use the Revolutionary Tribunal to silence the voices of radical journalists like Jean-Paul Marat and Jacques Hébert. Marat, who was arrested in April 1793, used his trial as a platform to express his views at greater elaboration, and due to his popularity, he was acquitted. From the grassroots, petitions poured in demanding a change in government. When asked to release the radical journalists, one Girondist leader threatened to burn down Paris – echoing a similar threat issued by the commander of the Austro-Prussian army marching on the capital. On May 31, a committee formed and, with the assistance of the National Guard, rose up in revolt and arrested many leading Girondists, including their most prominent name, Jacques Pierre Brissot. Robespierre and his ally Georges Danton had made their bid for power and won it, though less by their own agency than the alignment of their goals with the collective feeling. All their political opponents now removed, the most radical revolutionaries now held sole control over the government.

Danton, as the most charismatic and senior of the radical deputies, faced an excellent opportunity to take state power for himself. Instead, he shaped the Committee for Public Safety from its inception into a powerful body centered on him (to the point where it was known as the “Danton committee”) but recused himself from it shortly thereafter. He believed in the centralization of power that the Committee represented, but did not feel the need to be at its helm.

187px-death_of_marat_by_davidOn July 13, the Girdonists struck back. Charlotte Corday, a Girondist ally, assassinated Marat while he was working in his bathtub, as he often did to his poor dermatological condition. He became the ultimate martyr of the Revolution, at least since its radical turn, and when the revolutionary leaders sought to stamp out Catholicism in society, they often replaced crucifixes and statues of saints with busts of Marat. The famous painter (and friend of Robespierre) Jacques-Louis David left the most iconic image of Marat: a noticeably unblemished figure reclined in his tub, letter still in his hand, as if gone off to eternal sleep while in the midst of working for the Revolution. If the incident martyred Marat, it effectively confirmed all suspicions about the Girondists and thus, to militants, signaled the need for extreme measures in dealing with the Revolution’s foes.

Firstly, the Committee came up with its own constitution for the Republic, which granted universal male suffrage and even granted the vote to foreigners in good standing. It proclaimed popular sovereignty and declared that every Frenchman should be trained as a soldier to defend the nation. In effect, however, the rights conferred by the constitution had to be suspended until France was once more at peace. As long as the Revolution occupied precarious ground, final authority rested in the hands of the Committee. More immediately, the Convention repealed the old policy of requiring the peasantry to pay compensation to the nobility and clergy for the abolition of feudalism. The working classes were set free, but now working men had a right to political participation, and they were no longer still in financial bondage to the classes that had ruled over them in the past.

In July 1793, the leader of the militant Jacobins, Robespierre, was voted onto the Committee for Public Safety. He came to that body just as leaders of the wage-earning sans-culottes were once again demanding economic policies to keep down the price of bread. By September, the government had imposed a price “maximum” and was actively waging war against bondholders and grain hoarders. The Committee decreed the “Law of Suspects,” which permitted the arrest of anyone accused of “bad citizenship,” but was aimed at aristocrats, hoarders and agents of counterrevolution. Marie Antoinette would die in October, followed by around 20 Girondists, including Brissot. In total, approximately 40,000 people would die in the 15-month period commonly known as the Reign of Terror.

Understanding the Terror

The Terror must be understood in terms of social forces as well as ideological motivations. 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sThe Revolution had to this point witnessed explosions of popular anger, as evidenced by the storming of the Bastille and the royal palace. The sans-culottes had installed the Jacobins in power and were not afraid to thunder their way into the National Convention again. The Terror was as much an expression of their desires as the price controls on bread. The September Massacres of 1792 testifies to this. For decades, the working classes had been subjected to starvation and endless war on behalf of Bourbon claims. Those who profited from this vast inequality now conspired to restore the system that had produced their misery. There was, of course, the looming danger of counterrevolution. Although the execution of Louis XVI had damaged the royalist cause, the nobility could always comb the royal family for an heir. Marie Antoinette had to die too, and this meant there could never be any bargain with France’s German enemies, who had threatened to burn Paris and butcher its population. There was a strong preference for saving the Republic by triaging its most foreboding elements. Of course, given the chaotic situation, how would it be possible to determine a person’s quality of “citizenship,” a new and evolving concept? Not all counterrevolutionaries were arrested with weapons in their hands; to come under suspicion at all entailed death, and if it had not been by the guillotine, than possibly dismembered by a mob.

The Jacobins sought to execute their victims humanely with a legal basis. These were lawyers, after all, who believed in the supremacy of reason and educated justice. Even those who had their reservations about the Terror, like Danton, felt that it was unavoidable that some political prisoners were too dangerous to live. It was only a handful of Jacobins, such as Robespierre, who believed in the (oddly paradoxical) idea of using tyrannical measures to save liberty from tyranny, and that civic duty had to be enforced if it was not genuine. After all, the kings of old had used force to make lords and peasants submit if they would not give their obedience willingly. For example, the royal family had instigated the massacre of French Protestants in the 16th century in order to ensure Catholic supremacy. French colonization in the Americas, while not as ruthless as Spanish or English settlement, still depended on war against Native Americans and the exploitation of slaves. The bourgeois revolution of 1789 had ameliorated the condition of the budding middle class, resolving the contradiction of their political powerlessness with their economic strength. It was not until the 1793 insurrection that the Revolution allowed the working classes to express their grievances. The ongoing scarcity of bread and enormous security crises meant such injustices would be solved ferociously. Emotion was instrumental to the Terror; it was the expression of pent-up resentment for the wrongs of feudalism and anxiety over the future. Previous assemblies had suppressed emotion in politics, or tried to use it to their advantage; the Jacobins were the first politicians to implement official policies representative of the passionate emotions of the people, albeit filtered through state efficiency and bureaucratic planning.

182px-terreur_nantesThis is not to portray the Terror as a spontaneous outpouring of working class wrath. The sans-culottes supported it, mostly, but the Committee implemented it with its own zeal. Robespierre was the most eloquent defender of the Terror, but he was not its only perpetrator. Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, an actor turned politician, had more than 2,000 people killed in the city of Lyons, which had risen in revolt. In the Vendée region, the site of the largest royalist rebellion, the Committee supported the republican representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, and the mass execution by drowning of thousands of people. So heinous were their crimes that, even after Robespierre and his allies fell, their peers denounced them for their atrocities. Carrier was executed and Collot d’Herbois died in exile. Robespierre has become synonymous with the Terror because one of its aims was to centralize power in Paris and, for the duration of the war, in the Committee. As the spokesman for the Terror, Robespierre became indelibly associated with it. Yet, it was not just his brainchild; many of his peers also felt that dramatic steps were needed, and if the goal of the Terror was to suppress counterrevolution and win the wars, it succeeded. By 1795, revolutionary armies had pacified the civil war in the Vendée. French victories in Flanders marked a turning point in the fight against Austria and Prussia, driving them out of Belgium and the Netherlands. France even triumphed over a joint Spanish and Portuguese army in the Pyrenees. The Committee of Public Safety, a motley crew of radicals and bureaucrats, had overseen a total reversal of the Revolution’s dwindling fortunes.

Critics of the Terror frame it as a utopian project intended to use terror and intimidation to instill new moral (rather than material) incentives. The Terror, they argue, sought to create a new political culture by murdering anyone who resisted it. They describe the Jacobins as zealots deluded by dangerous philosophical doctrines. They treat the cold rationality of the Enlightenment or the romantic ideals of Rousseau as causal variables for the Terror. This is overstated. There were political conflicts stemming from philosophical debates. Some radical revolutionaries, like the journalist Jacques Hébert, wanted to eliminate Catholicism entirely from French society and replace it with system of organized atheism entitled the “Cult of Reason.” Robespierre, however, felt that people needed to look to a higher power, that their civic duty needed to come from virtue. He organized a “Cult of the Supreme Being” and worked to make it the new official faith. These ideological differences, however, did not propel the different factions involved in the Terror. As we shall see, they happened to coincide with the political interests of each group.

In March 1794, the Jacobins had first turned the Terror against their political enemies. Hébert and his followers had emerged as a left-wing opposition, speaking on behalf of the popular movement, with Hébert positioning himself as the heir to Marat. These Hébertistes were arrested went to the guillotine after a brief trial. Around the same time, Danton fell from power over allegations of corruption and financial misdeeds. This was the most difficult challenge for the Jacobins, as they feared Danton would use his charm to turn opinion in Paris to his side. They prevented his speaking in his own defense and sent him and his allies to death as soon as possible. The crisis of the war had permitted the Jacobins the authority to do all this, but it also left them politically secluded. Politicians outside Robespierre’s inner circle feared for their lives, and the friends of Danton and Hébert desired vengeance. Conspiracies formed against the Committee as the spring of 1794 gave way to summer. Ironically, some of the leading conspirators had participated actively in the Terror. Joseph Fouché, who would become minister of police under Napoleon, had overseen the Lyons executions alongside Collot d’Herbois. Jean-Lambert Tallien had instituted the Terror in Bordeaux.

On July 26, 1793, Robespierre attacked his enemies from the floor of the Convention. He 272px-execution_de_robespierre_fullwould not name his specific opponents, which helped galvanize other deputies to join the conspiracies against him rather than risk being suspected by him. The next day, called “Thermidor 9” in the new Jacobin calendar, Robespierre and other Committee members were arrested. Several of his compatriots killed themselves; Robespierre took a bullet to the jaw, but it is unclear whether this was self-inflicted. He went to the guillotine the next day. With his death, the Revolution would lessen in its intensity, drifting into indolence and complacency. Revolutionary France would last a few more years under the Directory, when a young military general named Napoleon Bonaparte would accumulate power before finally seizing it in a coup.


Assessing the legacy of the Terror is difficult. It arose from a highly divided political environment and continues to be treated as such. Contemporary critics of the Jacobins described figures like Robespierre, Marat and so on as monstrous, inhuman creatures, and today even “objective” historians adhere to lurid descriptions of their personalities and behavior. What do we discern when comparing the Terror to the historical parallels with which it is most often linked? Most dramatically, the Terror is cited as an inspiration for Hitler’s Holocaust. While there is some overlap in terms of bureaucratic state terror, there is a major difference in motive. The Terror sought to combat an existential crisis with a basis in reality; royalism was not an abstract threat but a very real one, with uprisings and invading armies to prove it. The Holocaust, by contrast, was an ethnic cleansing from Germany and almost all of Europe of Jews, Roma and other groups who posed no danger to Nazi rule outside of Nazi ideology. The Jews were no more a threat to Germany in 1942 than they had been at any other point in history. What about Stalin’s purges in the 1930s? Again, the parallel falters because Stalin was removing potential rivals; his power as head of the Soviet state was essentially consolidated by the mid-1920s, after Lenin’s death. The charges against his fellow Old Bolsheviks had no basis in reality. The purges were meant to prevent a challenge, not as a reaction to one.

185px-labille-guiard_robespierreThe Terror, however, was very much a reaction to an imperiled revolution. Revolutionary France was in a state of civil war as well as at war with foreign powers. Perhaps the best comparisons are to be made with the Russian and Spanish civil wars in the 20th century. In all three cases, relatively moderate center-left governments became discredited, losing popular support, leading to more radical and centralized groups coming to power. The French Jacobins, the Russian Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communists backed by Moscow all rode the waves of undammed rage against the cruel, crumbling regimes they were replacing. In each instance ordinary people stabbed, shot and lynched representatives of the old order: priests, aristocrats, landlords, greedy merchants, and so on. In addition, in each instance, innocent people were caught up in the bloodshed. This is to neither absolve nor condemn the Terror or the Russian and Spanish “terrors,” but to understand such violence as not emerging from ideologues and dictatorships but from humanity itself. When ordinary people are starved and repressed for generations, they generally do not make for peaceful, tolerant citizens when freed.

It bears mentioning that there were “white” terrors in all these revolutions as well. The Spanish Nationalists massacred men, women and children at places like Badajoz and elsewhere. Civilians were bombed indiscriminately at Guernica. In Russia, the White soldiers targeted Jewish towns for pogroms, and the Jewish faith of Trotsky was singled out for propaganda purposes. In the next entry, we will discuss the extent of the reactionary terrorism following the Reign of Terror, including gangs of dandy fops roaming the streets of Paris and picking fights with now downfallen Jacobin supporters.

Interestingly, the three aforementioned cases had all very different outcomes. The Bolsheviks won their civil war and set up a lasting state. The left-wing Spanish Republicans lost their civil war, leading to a lasting pseudo-fascist state. The Jacobins, however, won the civil war but still fell from power shortly thereafter. In Spain’s case, the Republican side faced overwhelming odds because it was isolated, dependent on aid from the Soviet Union, and divided by sectarian differences politically. The Jacobins stamped out any challenges from the left and right and were able to hold onto power, and benefited from inheriting one of the best militaries in Europe (Republican Spain, however, had to fight the European superpower of its day, Germany). The lack of trained officers and proper supply hindered France, but in most other respects, its military remained a potent force. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, found themselves fighting the vestiges of the tsarist military in their civil war, but fortunately for them it was one of the worst fighting forces in Europe, having been decimated in World War I and a disastrous war with Japan. The Bolsheviks did not just outstrip the Jacobins in warfare, however; they were better politicians. The Bolsheviks slowly defanged and purged their rivals after seizing power in October 1917. Lenin even managed to thin the Bolshevik ranks themselves toward the end of the conflict with the Whites. Lenin believed in his cause, but he also possessed a keen sense of timing and management, as reflected by his ability to drag his followers, sometimes at their great objection, through the events that ultimately led to their triumph and the establishment of a socialist state that, ironically, Lenin died before he could truly lead.

Robespierre and the Jacobins had no similar political acumen. They were not, as the Bolsheviks, professional revolutionaries. They were, for the most part, bourgeois intellectuals who believed that the righteousness of their mission would be sufficient for them to see out the Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety was made up of lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists and playwrights who had, just years before, been on the outside the political system. They had no guides but their own ideas. They did not even have the advantage, as Lenin did, of having a historical, scientific political program like Marxism. They depended instead on the highly metaphysical musings of philosophers who pontificated about how the world ought to be (according to them) but with no practical understanding of how to get there. They therefore had no grand solution for uniting the bourgeoisie and the working classes other than the guillotine.


Censer, Jack R. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Penn State Press, 2001.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford Paperbacks, 1989.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. Hachette UK, 2010.

Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. Yale University Press, 1989.

Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 1964.

Linton, Marisa, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2013.

McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.

McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press, 2012.

Palmer, Robert Roswell. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.

Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French revolution. Random House, 2012.

Shulim, Joseph I., et al. “Robespierre and the French Revolution.” (1977): 20-38.

Soboul, Albert. “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4.” Past & Present 5 (1954): 54-70.

The French Revolution: Interpretations & Causes

We are not supposed to like the French Revolution too much. We acknowledge the virtues of its founding principles, liberal notions that persist to this day: liberty, equality and 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sfraternity. When it comes to the public killing of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers, however, we condemn the Reign of Terror as an early form of totalitarianism, where the state decides who lives and who dies, who serves the common good and who threatens it. Liberalism praises the slow, organic process of evolution, of gradual reform reached through negotiation and compromise. It opposes the bloody and righteous severing of a new order from the status quo. Such a righteousness crusade, it is claimed, leads to the ends outweighing the means, inevitably resulting in purges and deliberate famines — or even outright genocide. In the popular imagination, the guillotine represents not just the specific time of the Terror, but also an early form of state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the epitome of the state using political violence to quash dissenters and silence critics. In a liberal and pluralistic society such as ours, where freedom of thought and speech are valued, the Terror stands as an aberration, a warning to us that the French Revolution ultimately betrayed its noble goals of bringing France from feudalism to modernity.

The problem with this perspective is that it presumes peaceful pacts toward progress are the norm. The reality is that harsh departures from the past are sometimes necessary. In the context of the French Revolution, the victory of liberal republicanism was not assured; on the contrary, it was under constant and continuous assault by an array of reactionary forces. Noble émigrés, religious peasants, and foreign invaders all desired a return to the traditional feudal system. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves competed to shape the final product of their social upheaval. Constitutional monarchists, moderate liberals and radical utopians from the middle class shifted between allegiances with aristocratic reformers, the urban poor and starving peasants as they sought to steer the revolutionary state through uncharted waters to the unknown shore of a more just and prosperous society. Unlike “the Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 that desires only power for its own sake, even the most despotic figures in the latter stages of the Revolution believed they were imposing order to lay the foundation for a better world. They wanted to wreck any chance of the old order restoring itself, and while in the short-term they failed, in the long-run they succeeded. They showed that society arranged according to the feudal era was in essence antagonistic to the class relations created by the socioeconomic and cultural changes witnessed in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made the French Revolution unavoidable. The French Revolution in turn has undermined the ability of tyrants and oligarchs worldwide to rule, their very regimes constantly called into question.

Monarchs wielded political power after the Revolution (and inexplicably still do in many countries), but never in the same way again. Common laborers, though failing to achieve many of their demands, came away realizing the potential of people power. Most importantly, power in France shifted irreversibly to the bourgeoisie. Although many would become supporters of imperialism (under Bonaparte) or the monarchy (the Legitimists and Orléanists), they believed such regimes would be the best for France, not because they desired to exclude themselves from politics. The French Revolution taught its contemporaries and continues to teach future generations about their ability to affect incredible political and social transformations when adequately organized.

Interpreting the French Revolution

In academia, debate rages over two rival interpretations of the French Revolution. The classic Marxist interpretation, associated with historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, describes the Revolution as a bourgeois uprising against feudalism to obtain the economic freedom to develop early capitalism. Revisionist historians like Albert Cobban and François Furet argue that the Revolution did not advance the development of France into a capitalist state, and rather than a equalizing event, regard it as a precursor to totalitarianism. In their view, the Revolution was more about barbarism than progress.

It is rather comforting to find parallels between the killings of the Terror and, say, the 172px-cruikshank_-_the_radicals_armskilling fields of Cambodia. It is easy to lump the two together and condemn them both. This knee-jerk judgement rests on the fallacious presumption that, historically, liberal democracy has relatively little blood on its hands. Truthfully, liberalism was just as violent as fascism and communism in remaking the social fabric, especially in its promotion of capitalism. Marx never wrote about the French Revolution, but he wrote extensively about the blossoming of capitalism. He makes it clear that capitalism and classical liberal views about free trade and individualism did not grow peacefully out of feudalism; they destroyed it and replaced it. We remain ignorant of this fact because textbooks recount the killing of kings and nobles, but are largely silent on the main victims of early capitalism: the peasants and craftsmen who once enjoyed secure places under feudalism.  The turn to commercial agriculture and industrialization that defined the Industrial Revolution uprooted these people and removed their very livelihoods. They could either cling to the old ways or become workers in the new proletariat class. Marx writes eloquently not just about their exploitation under capitalism, but also about their alienation and creation of a false consciousness. People who had at least been connected to their labor under feudalism became unskilled wage-earners. The whole of their economic activity fell under the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Even in places where the liberal replacement of feudalism went mostly unopposed, such as England and the nascent United States, regular people suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The major difference between those cases and France is that the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French Revolution attempted to create a new society in a matter of years, not decades or centuries. As we shall see, vested interests fought intensely to deny that. In 1800, it was possible for Jeffersonian republicans to lead a political revolution in the U.S., but in 2016, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than a major change to the political or economic system. Similarly, in 1789, the idea of challenging a feudal system that had ruled France for over 600 years was considered extremist and dangerous. That is, however, what the Revolution sought to do, and in so doing, inspired generations of people to question the present order and struggle to create a better world.

We should also consider the path France could have taken had it undergone peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. There is no assurance it would have become a liberal democracy. Barrington Moore touches on this in his seminal work on dictatorship and democracies. In Germany and Russia, the nobility allied with the bourgeoisie to organize industrialization through state-directed initiatives. When those countries underwent revolutions circa World War I, the republics that emerged were too weak to rule, leading to states of alternative ideologies. These states attempted to impose their own systems and principles as the liberal order they opposed, but with the swiftness and audacity of the French Revolution. Many observers take this to mean the French Revolution inspired fascism and Bolshevism. It is more apt to say Bolshevism and fascism were inspired by liberalism and how it forged new views of seeing the world. We often take for granted that the default ideas and systems of today were once considered radical and revolutionary.

The Absolute Monarchy

In order to understand the causes of the 1789 Revolution, it is necessary to consider both long-standing structural problems as well as more short-term crises that prompted a complete social collapse. To start, France was (ostensibly) an absolute monarchy in 1789, with power primarily centralized in the throne. While we might think feudalism is inherently dictatorial, in fact the opposite is true. The cornerstone of feudalism is vassalage: regional counts and barons ruling at the local level, but swearing their fealty to a higher lord. The king (or queen) was at the very top of the social pyramid, but his (or her) rule depended on the continued obedience of the vassals. To keep those vassals mollified, it was common practice for monarchs to extend their nobles special rights. The most infamous of these was the droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis) that permitted nobles to have sexual relations with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no actual proof French lords (or any European nobles) invoked this right. French nobles did, however, exercise rights to rents from those who worked on their estates or domains, as well as a percentage of the crops harvested by peasants on the nobles’ lands.

It was not until the 17th century that the French monarchy began to erode the liberties vassals enjoyed under feudalism. These, of course, were the freedoms that protected nobles from the power of the monarchy. For example, French nobles had been able to take complaints on royal overreach to appellate courts called parlements (not to be confused with English parliaments) that would invalidate regal pronouncements if they infringed on convention. (Compare this to the unwritten constitution that still perseveres in British politics to this day.) The 16th century had closed with wars of religion across Europe, as the Protestant Reformation ruptured the glue that held the feudal order together: Catholicism. Cardinal 290px-richelieu2c_por_philippe_de_champaigne_28detalle29Richelieu, the de facto head of the French government and well-known nemesis to the Three Musketeers in Dumas’ novel, sought to keep France in a strong position on the Continent and to profit from the disorder caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Local lords were brought to heel and the religious tolerance of Protestants was revoked. Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, furthered these policies until the nobility tried in vain to reassert its power independent from the crown in a series of civil wars that finally ended in 1653. In the meantime, Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” grew up as a child king, accustomed to unrivaled power. Under his reign, from 1643 to 1715, France was perpetually involved in wars over succession disputes, expansionism and counter-expansionism. France had become the hegemonic power of early modern Europe and behaved as such, diplomatically and militarily.

The Aristocracy & Bourgeoisie

The French nobility, although having lost some of its autonomy, remained quite powerful. The upper ranks of the military and the clergy, the pillars of absolutism supporting the crown, included only nobles. The most affluent attended the royal court at Versailles, engaged in intrigues and entertainment, living off the taxes and duties leveled on the peasants who worked their land. (Some hereditary peers living in rural areas, however, fared little better than the peasants they lived beside.) For those outside the noble class, it 197px-charles-alexandre_de_calonne_-_vigc3a9e-lebrun_1784was possible to become ennobled through the sale of judicial and administrative offices. In the 17th century, the sale of offices was so common in order to fund constant warfare that, in the 18th century, access to the nobility became much more restrictive. The hereditary nobility had contempt for the bourgeoisie “diluting” their class through the purchase of a savonette à vilain (the commoners’ soap). The bourgeoisie who had already bought their way into the nobility also had incentive to block others from reaching their level, as they wanted their titles to become hereditary as well, securing fortunes for future generations. By 1789, social climbing was still possible, but much more daunting for members of the bourgeoisie. They were paying for the operation of the state, but were excluded from participation: a form of taxation without representation. This was a huge motivation for revolution.

The very nature of the French economy also discriminated against the bourgeoisie. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, had implemented a mercantilist system that featured heavy protectionist policies meant to develop French industries by promoting exports and depressing the demand for imports. Although France never equaled the English or the Dutch in foreign trade, the French state became incredibly powerful in terms of state-led production. The early bourgeoisie were thus merged into the existing feudal structure, overseen by a powerful bureaucracy. As a result, legal defenses of property rights and private economic competition did not blossom; on the contrary, the state reigned supreme in economic matters, just as it did politically.

As discussed, members of the bourgeoisie that wanted greater power exchanged trade and 472px-new-france1750commerce for titles and fiefdoms. For example, a financial counselor to Louis XIV, Antoine Crozat, rose from peasant stock to become a wealthy merchant before purchasing the barony of Thiers in 1714. Like many other bourgeoisie of his time, Crozat was heavily involved in France’s overseas colonies. In 1712, he received a royal charter granting him dominion over all trading and moneymaking licenses in Louisiana for 15 years. Sadly for Crozat and other bourgeois colonial overlords like him, the once profitable fur trade in North America had diminished, and colonialism on the new continent never prospered for the French empire the way it would for the United Kingdom. Crozat lost around $1 million even with his trade monopoly in Louisiana. When France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with Great Britain, the peace agreement stipulated that France turn over control of its North American colonies to the British. (It would later regain Louisiana from Spain, only to sell that territory to the U.S. in the Napoleonic era.) France was humiliated, leaving the feudal system in debt and in doubt. Absolutism and mercantilism had made France the strongest country in the world, but perpetual conflict and divergent class interests had taken their toll. The government could no longer take the “commoners” for granted. Importantly, this materialistic conflict also coincided with an intellectual movement that supplied an impetus to bourgeois reformers to challenge the very character of the feudal regime.

The Enlightenment & Rousseau

Political change in the late 18th century was synonymous with the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that sought to bring the rigor and dispassion of scientific analysis to human behavior, including theories of government. Direct experience and concrete evidence became privileged over blind faith and static doctrines. Operating according to reason and rationality, Enlightenment philosophers argued, educated men could rule themselves rather than be ruled by feudal lords or organized religion. The French philosophes included 299px-voltairecandidfrontis2bchap01-1762Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, the primary editor of the famous secular Encyclopédie, the most famous Enlightenment publication. It embodied the desire to provide general information to the public (or, more accurately, the literate classes.) On political issues, the philosophes opposed arbitrary power or rule through fear and superstition, but fell short of unanimously endorsing participatory democracy and universal suffrage. As men of letters, they believed in their own intelligence and judiciousness, but did not extend this faith to the illiterate, “unenlightened” masses. (It should be noted that U.S. revolutionaries like James Madison, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, argued for the “protection of the minority of the opulent from the tyranny of the minority.”) Most philosophers wanted to remove the obstacles that hindered them from realizing their skills and talents as intellectuals; this was their definition of “freedom.” In terms of enabling the impoverished, uneducated working classes to obtain the same advantages and resources they possessed, the leading lights of the Enlightenment were silent. Still, their strident atheism and devotion to reason pervades all stages of the French Revolution.

The later, more radical Revolutionary period is more accurately tied to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a contemporary of the Enlightenment philosophes, but 190px-rousseau_in_later_lifephilosophically their opposite. In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), he argued that people are innately decent, but that institutions corrupt and degrade them. He admired the “noble savage,” primeval man innocent of education and the sciences, and his ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This looking backward with rose-tinted glasses was anathema to the philosophes. In his commentary on the work, Voltaire wrote: “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.” Whereas Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers saw higher learning as separating man from beasts, Rousseau believed that human morality in the raw state of nature was rough but organic. “Civilized” society brought with it private property, and by extension, inequality and disillusionment. People come into the world without distinctions or obligations; it is society that confers upon them different backgrounds and statuses, dividing them and driving them into competition with each other.

This viewpoint would become the foundation for Rousseau’s chief political work, The Social Contract (1762), which would have an immense impact on the French Revolution. He argued against an elective representative system, calling such a system “elective aristocracy,” and supported democratic rights for everyone, including women. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign for Rousseau is the sum of all individuals coming together and forming the “general will” – the conceptual manifestation of what is in the common interest. Each individual, motivated by virtue, willingly pledges himself or herself to the shared general will, as it comprises rudiments of each person’s desire. If there are incongruities about what should be the general will, these conflicting opinions annul each other, leaving the general will to arise naturally. This spontaneous direct democracy may sound utopian, but Rousseau was a romantic. His emphasis on emotion and virtue expressed an extensive estrangement with the world as it was. Rousseau craved dynamism and change, repressed in a cold and conservative feudal culture, and he yearned to restore the suppressed springs of life. Many shared his restive spirit, and it can be perceived in the sentimental novels and poems of Goethe, Pushkin, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantic artists. As we shall see, many of the most radical leaders of the Revolution (especially the members of the Jacobin Club) regarded Rousseau as their philosophical guide. His political theory was incompatible with the old order; it had to be overturned and destroyed, with a more virtuous popular democracy created in its place.

The role of ideology in social revolution is vital. It is important to consider how a new ruling class attempts to convince other classes to assent to its ethical, political and social values. It was not enough for the bourgeoisie to affirm their economic power in their historical moment; they had to transmit their mindsets through cultural power. As the educated class, 18th century intellectuals made a case for “rule by experts” that is still deployed in modern politics. It is the language of meritocracy: rule by talent, not birth. This argument omits that some people are born with more advantages than others. The thinkers who influenced the leaders of the Revolution articulated a negative liberty that suits the bourgeoisie: freedom from government regulation, censorship, and social immobility. This libertarian mentality is still the one most often deployed in our current politics, where government is constantly criticized for its invasion of our private lives, rather than as a democratic system of empowerment for the people.

Rousseau, however, was a deviation from the norm. He railed against inequality and argued for a positive freedom that would level the playing field in a sort of primitive 135px-rousseau_pirated_editioncommunism. It would be erroneous to draw parallels between Rousseau and Marx’s scientific socialism, as science and Rousseau’s romanticism are integrally conflicting. It is more accurate to compare Rousseau with the utopian socialists that preceded Marx: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Like Rousseau, these thinkers sought to spread a “new social Gospel” (as Marx and Engels call it in the Communist Manifesto) without paying due diligence to class antagonisms or revolutionary potential. In the manner of other philosophers, Rousseau plucked his idealized republic from his own imagination, more as an intellectual exercise than a program for action. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the social aspect of the French Revolution ran into great difficulty when philosophy was put into practice. The theoretical strength of Rousseau’s work did, however, form a union of bourgeois and working class interests that would take the Revolution in its final decisive direction.

The Petite Bourgeoisie & Peasantry

Minor property holders made up the bulk of the lowest stratum of the 18th century French social hierarchy. The vast majority were peasants, emancipated serfs who owned or rented land and made up the backbone of the agrarian economy. They had to pay noble lords for the “right” to use mills and wine presses required for agricultural production. In the main, they were more concerned with the concrete duties of the state — namely, to provide them with bread and security — than the changing of their social existence. As Marx observed, peasants tended to be conservative, prone to protecting their minor holdings and not putting it at risk. It is an underappreciated fact that the French peasantry were instrumental in moderating the Revolution and bringing the Terror period to an end.

In the cities and towns, factories were still a relatively new development, and the proletarian class was small. There were, however, artisans and craftspeople that produced basic consumer goods. There were also traders and shopkeepers that sold them. Marx referred to this class as the “little” or “petite” bourgeoisie. In the context of the French Revolution, 176px-sans-culottethey are known as the sans-culottes, so called because they wore trousers rather than the knee breeches of the upper classes. In 1789, the bourgeoisie had been so squeezed by war and economic crisis that the “little bourgeoisie” was essentially indistinguishable from common urban laborers. Like peasants, their priority for joining the Revolution was greater economic security and the provision of food at fair prices. The sans-culottes saw the benefits of the philosophical principles espoused by the “big bourgeois,” but their continued support for the revolutionary government depended on whether their more immediate basic needs were met. They were willing to give their support to any government that would intervene in the economy to ensure an affordable price for food, whatever its philosophical principles. If the bourgeois members of the Revolution hungered for freedom, the sans-culottes simply hungered for bread.

Bread and Taxes

In 1774, newly crowned King Louis XVI appointed the economically liberal finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Turgot sought to improve France’s economic situation by liberalizing commerce, subscribing to a “laissez faire” philosophy. This included deregulating the grain industry, which was significantly monitored and policed by the state. Grain merchants tended to hoard their grain rather than sell it, inflating the price and raising their profits. They would also dilute flour with other material, including chalk and grinded-up bone. This caused the working classes to riot in 1775, in the “Flour War.” The riots were put down by force. Although the riots indicated the precariousness of the feudal regime, the negative impact of economic freedom on affordable food was a working class grievance, not a bourgeois one. As such, bread alone fell short of cutting across class differences and inducing revolution. The bourgeoisie would not be motivated to commit to insurrection until the monarchy attempted to do the most vile sin in the eyes of bourgeoisie anywhere, everywhere: the government tried to raise its taxes.

France had joined the American Revolution around the same time as the Flour War, 320px-surrender_of_general_burgoyneseeking revenge for the embarrassment England had inflicted on the French by taking France’s North American colonies. The American Revolution succeeded and humbled the English, but it cost France 520 million livres in loans, issued at incredible interest rates. A series of finance ministers all wanted to raise taxes, but French appellate courts all feared higher taxes would place more of a burden on the nobility (especially the bourgeoisie who had bought their way into the nobility precisely to escape taxation). These courts, once rendered irrelevant to royal diktat, reasserted their influence and blocked the increasingly vulnerable crown in its desperate attempt to raise more funds.

To break the impasse, the king assembled the Estates-General, an assembly made up of representatives from the three estates of the realm: those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobility) and those who worked (the commoners). It had not been summoned for over a century, and it in no way mirrored the complex and multilayered reality of 18th century French society. It did, however, provide an avenue by which the monarchy could, with the help of the old nobility, impose a greater tax burden on the bourgeoisie. The calling of the Estates-General, however, had a major unintended consequence: it gathered the bourgeoisie together and gave them a platform by which they could express their dissatisfaction with the regime. The concerns of the poor masses went unheeded; the delegates of the Third Estate were uniformly called from the “big” and “little” bourgeoisie. As such, the Estates-General was primed for a bourgeois hijacking.

A political pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? by Abbé Sieyès became the unofficial bourgeois manifesto. He called for double representation of the Third Estate – 320px-estatesgeneralthat is, the Third Estate having twice as many members as the other two estates combined. He also asserted that all three estates should meet together instead of separately, as was custom. With votes counted numerically rather than by status, the Third Estate would essentially control the political agenda. The nobility and clergy would essentially have token representation but little influence. Most of the representatives from the Second Estate, parish priests rather than bishops and archbishops, sympathized with the Third Estate. This was because many low-ranking priests were the second or third sons of the bourgeoisie. A handful of nobles also defected to the Third Estate, the most famous being Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. He belonged to a cadet branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and supported a constitutional monarchy. When the Third Estate finally met in Versailles, in June 1789, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly. Far from semantics, the bourgeois delegates consciously distanced themselves from the Estates-General and thereby all the trappings of the feudal past. The crown was not amused. Barred from their meeting hall, the Assembly met in a nearby tennis court, and swore the Tennis Court Oath: a pledge to not convene until they had drafted a new constitution for France. Public support swung to the National Assembly, especially in the cities.

Like the 320px-le_serment_du_jeu_de_paumeAmerican Revolution, the French Revolution was posed to be bourgeois revolution. The old system depended on the fruit of capitalism but shunned capitalists. Encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, the bourgeoisie made a case for society being constituted around them. Despite their conviction, they preferred reform to violence. The Revolution, however, would not proceed as the bourgeoisie alone wanted; they could not impose themselves on the other classes. The monarchy especially would resist the abandonment of feudalism. The nobility, with some exceptions, wanted to retain their feudal privileges and opposed modifying France’s economic orientation, as they were its main beneficiaries, along with the crown. Most nobles feared what would happen if their minor commercial investments had to compete in a more liberal economy. Some open-minded aristocrats favored a constitution to give certain bourgeois freedoms legal backing, but they did not want to be made a secondary or even symbolic element of society. They were “superior” to the “common” people by their very nature, and did not want to be subordinated to them – especially when some noble families had spent decades clawing their way up from peasant or merchant stock into the upper classes. Those nobles that did defect to the bourgeoisie envisioned some form of advisory role for themselves in the new system, similar to the oversight function of the House of Lords in Great Britain.

Storming the Bastille

In July 1789, Louis XVI sacked Jacques Necker, his reformist finance minister. Necker had not respected the Estates-General as anything other than a means toward changing the tax system. It was rumored, however, that he supported political reform if it meant coming closer to resolving France’s major economic problems. The royal dismissal of Necker indicated to the bourgeoisie that the monarchy refused to brook any challenge to its authority. For the working classes, this meant that a suppression of dissent would not be long in coming. They had experienced the pattern over numerous uprisings, including the recent Flour War. The entire Third Estate, bourgeois and laborers alike, realized that the monarchy would use its most powerful extension, the military, to quell any rebellion.

Both groups sought weapons, and it made sense that arms could be found at the Bastille, a medieval fortress prison that stood in the center of Paris. Its presence represented the antiquated, passé ideas of the Middle Ages. In function, it served a state that operated according to dictatorial measures that afforded no respect to the average person. Bourgeois 320px-prise_de_la_bastilleleaders sought to negotiate with the soldiers holding the Bastille, and even accepted an invitation to breakfast with the fortresses’ governor. Apprehension gripped the sans-culottes that were present, however, as time was not on their side. They were acutely aware that the army would start massacring residents in the poorer Paris districts at any moment. The masses fought their way forward, raging through the prison, releasing inmates and seizing gunpowder. Fighting erupted, but the Bastille governor surrendered when the rebels fixed cannon on his men. The raiders killed the governor and placed his head on the bike. Other members of the garrison also died. The Republic rewarded the original Bastille insurgents with medals, and mostly, they were sans-culottes. They had the most to lose if there was a counterrevolution, and thus were the most proactive in wanting to neutralize a potential reprisal by the state. The “big bourgeoisie” may have dominated the Assembly, but it was the “little bourgeoisie” and the urban poor who directed the Revolution from below.

In the countryside, the collapse of central authority throughout July 1789 resulted in the “Great Fear,” major peasant revolts that featured improvised farmer self-defense leagues commandeering manor houses. Peasants feared that, with all the unrest in the capital, they would continue to be ignored unless they took matters into their own hands. They also knew that by taking control of noble estates that they would be massacred if the Revolution failed. In the meantime, bandits would exploit the lawlessness of a divided France to prey on the vulnerable peasantry. All this chaos led to the hysterical hoarding of weapons and property. Bit by bit, the regular people of France were dismantling the old regime and throwing their support behind the National Assembly. The slate had been cleared; the question became what new system should be created in place of the old one.


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Arab Anomie: Ideology in the Middle East

With the West still reeling from the Brussels attacks and the war in Syria launching 320px-aqmi_flag-svganother refugee crisis, the Middle East and radical Islam remain constant features of headlines. An underappreciated fact about current events is the role of ideology, and how nationalism has given way to political Islam in much of the region. To understand the motivations of Islamists and the failure of liberals to triumph in the wake of the Arab Spring, it is valuable to look at regional history and understand how the decline of pan-Arabism and the poverty of liberalism has combined into the rise of Islamism and, in extreme cases, jihadism. Such examination shows that many of the present problems cannot be attributed to Islam or even political Islam as an ideology, but the ignorance of the West of its errors and its unwillingness to reign in local actors who are using sectarian and ethnic conflicts for their own benefit in a scramble to accumulate more influence.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire instituted the Tanzimât reform era, bringing about a constitutional system followed by political liberalization. These political developments inspired Al-Nahda, the “awakening,” an intellectual movement that spread throughout the Middle East. The Lebanese author Jurji Zaydan wrote a plethora of historical novels meant for ordinary people. These heroic tales, directed at a general audience, inspired many Arabs to develop a shared identity, a pan-Arabism, that became a powerful force in the movement to secure the independence of Arab states. Dominated by the Ottomans and Western powers, these countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq – had produced educated, passionate intelligentsias who aspired to “catch up” their countries’ development to the hegemons that ruled them. As Benedict Anderson points out in Imagined Communities, these intellectuals selectively chose norms and events from their respective histories to craft a social cement strong enough to unite repressed peoples against their oppressors. That distinction could (and still can) be drawn between Levantine, Bedouin and North African cultures faded from importance as post-colonial politicians dreamed of grand Arab republics.

Although largely forgotten by most Westerners, pan-Arabism achieved short-lived 320px-flag_of_the_arab_league-svgsuccesses in the foundation of the United Arab Republic and the Arab Federation (the 1958 unions of Syria and Egypt and Iraq and Jordan, respectively). Northern and southern Yemen did merge, although the current civil war being fought there imperils that legacy. Nevertheless, these events prove what an instrumental power pan-Arabism had in Middle Eastern state-building post-World War II, when many of these states finally obtained autonomy. You can also perceive its importance by the fact that the Baath Party, strongly oriented toward Arab nationalism, held power in Iraq before the 2003 invasion and still does in Syria.

This last fact should indicate that pan-Arabism has shifted toward opposing U.S. hegemony in the region. There are several reasons for this. The first is the most obvious: nationalist ideology is predicated on national sovereignty, and U.S. foreign policy is defined by intervention abroad on behalf of its interests, be they strategic or economic. Accordingly, the U.S. favors “liberal” politicians who opt for pragmatism over passion, perhaps best embodied by the market reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China: “it does not matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” This explains the second motivation for U.S. antagonism: nationalism fosters exclusion and conflict. There are groups within the nation and without; there are people who rightly occupy national territory and those who do not. Trade and conflict flow best in the absence of war and violence. U.S. policies, grounded as they are in liberal values, has no gods before cooperation and collaboration, and encourages its allies to smash the false idols that hinder integration into the global economy and its culture. That the U.S. presently dominates both that economy and that culture is not at all a separate issue.

The death of nationalism in the Arab world has led to a vacuum increasingly filled by radical Islam, a “pan-Islamism” in contrast to pan-Arabism. The central tenet of such movements is that Muslims have fallen back into godless ignorance (Jahiliyya) and that the Islamic world must be redeemed and return to religious law. These movements are fueled by oppressive regimes at home, whose arbitrary use of power could have once been justified by the goal of building strong Arab states, but which now seem only meant to benefit the ruling class. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser founded a military state in 1952, but commanded public support because of his mission of creating a free self-sufficient state, unaligned in the Cold War. By 2011, Nasser’s military state remained, but his successor’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, aspired only to line the pockets of his friends and groom his son to replace him. In Syria, too, the Assad regime once strived to represent the rural segments of the country, the poor people in the hinterlands far from the prosperity of Damascus and Aleppo. Now, however, the regime seeks to enrich itself, to fit into the upper classes rather than redistribute wealth. The Assad family and its closest associates belonged to a small religious minority, the Alawites, but even this group can no longer count on patronage. Without the carrot of nationalism to dangle before the people, many regimes in the Middle East have relied on the stick: the harassment, detention and torture of dissidents who seek to organize resistance against these autocratic regimes.

These regimes have created in their countries what the sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “anomie” – an alienation borne from missing moral standards and communal connections. Islamic groups capitalized on this through the provision of a strong moral code (sharia law) and public goods and services, such as through hospitals and schools. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, emerged as the most potent political force after the 2011 downfall of the Mubarak regime, in no small part due to its history of social work. The Taliban, a much more extreme Islamist organization, brought a sort of justice to lawless areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, exploiting resentments toward weak or unwilling state institutions. Of course, it must be noted that all Islamist groups also have a weapon in framing their enemies as immoral, even evil. These “enemies” include both native tyrants like Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad, but inevitably also include Western governments and multinational corporations, especially those in the U.S.

There is an undeniable religious element to this framing, in the sense that Western culture is generally more progressive and tolerant in its social values. Feminism, multiculturalism, freedom of religion and speech – these, at least in theory if not absolutely in practice, are widely lauded in the West and detested by most Islamists, as is the case with most social conservatives. Yet, this framing is not completely religious in nature. During the Cold War, the U.S. (along with the Soviet Union) endorsed despotic regimes across the developing world (including western Asia), leading their victims to connect the crimes of the local strongman to the foreign benefactor. Once the Cold War ended, these same regimes adopted the political and economic liberalizations the U.S. increasingly made conditional on access to financial aid and loans. This led to windfalls for local elites as public utilities were hived off to the private sector, while most of the public languished in unemployment and growing income inequality. There were cultural effects as well, as Hollywood movies, Western fashion and American fast food flooded these ripe new markets. As in the West, citizens were becoming consumers, but frustrated ones, without the disposable income to imitate their Western counterparts. Denied material wealth, they have turned increasingly to the moral nourishment offered to them through Islamist ideology.

“Ideology” rather than “Islamist” is key here, because there is nothing inherently sinister or devious about Islam as a social force, regardless of the xenophobic cottage industry that has emerged around the faith. Political Islam, like nationalism before it, acts as food for the soul, to lift up those who are suffering to believe that a better world is possible. Communism, too, once had a similar effect across the world, although it never flourished in the Middle East (so-called “Arab socialism” was merely state capitalism in the service of nationalism). Laborers and intellectuals alike organized, fought and died for the promise of a classless future. Most notably, in the 1930s, communism and specifically its opposition to fascism galvanized volunteers from outside Spain – the International Brigades – to join the Spanish Civil War and risk their lives in a conflict that, for them, had entirely ideological incentives. In the 1940s, communism (along with nationalism) assisted the disparate peoples of the Soviet Union to rally against the horrors of a German invasion to reserve disastrous defeats into the demise of the Nazi state.

Under contemporary liberalism, however, there is no ideological glue permeating society, no larger calling or cause applicable to all people. There is no alternative vision rather than the status quo, which is so vague as to defy any real categorization. We claim to be capitalists, yet leading industries and economic sectors are symbiotic with and nurtured by the state. We claim to be democrats, but public participation is largely low through the West, and while we support the idea of democracy, actual satisfaction with democracy is low worldwide. We champion “freedom,” yet across the West, government surveillance has been on the rise, not the decline, and even then, “freedom” is seen as negative: freedom from the state, freedom from censorship, etc. We expect our politicians not to lead us, exactly, as we are each on our own individual paths. We would prefer that politicians merely manage us, ensuring indirectly our health and wealth, but also remaining as unobtrusive as possible in our daily interactions.

This sort of political philosophy suits advanced industrialized economies firmly at the center of the global economy, but does not perform well in places where the status quo is objectionable and illegitimate in the eyes of most of the population. In the Middle East, then, the hope that liberal politicians and “moderate rebels” would prevail in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has proven naïve at best, and also catastrophically wasteful for governments like the U.S. who have tried, in vain, to fund pro-Western forces in places like Iraq, Libya and Syria. Liberalism on its own cannot cut across ethnic and religious cleavages like actual ideologies can. With its emphasis on the atomized individual, it simply misses the message of community featured prominently in nationalism, communism, or political Islam. The great liberal philosophers, from Locke to Montesquieu, emerged from political environments where national independence was not realistically threatened and political liberalization had occurred organically. Liberals may not always be part of the ruling class, but usually they represent the privileged class.

The lesson from this is that we cannot realistically expect the present strife in the Middle East to be resolved in accordance with Western interests. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and jihadist fighters in Iraq and Syria demonstrate that, in different circumstances, political Islam has an important social capital advantage over liberalism. For this gap to be overcome it would be necessary for secular institutions within civil society to supplant political Islam as an organizing force; with the exception of perhaps Tunisia, the single Arab Spring success story, this sort of outcome has yet to materialize. In colonial times, institutions geared toward human development were neglected, while those institutions needed to enforce order (security agencies, the military) were strengthened. The nationalist visionaries who inherited these bodies did little to correct this imbalance, as political order, in their view, had to precede social justice. With social justice now no longer viable in these times of austerity and disappearing states, it becomes much more conceivable how some Arabs might throw in with reestablishing a caliphate rather than reforming their current states.

What can Western policymakers do about anomie in the Middle East? They should do very little in terms of ideology. Stuffing Western norms and values down Arab throats was part of the problem, never the solution. We would be better served by seriously considering that question posted after the September 2001 terrorist attacks: “Why do they hate us?” Antipathy toward Western hegemony, globalization and foreign policy adventurism has not been sufficient alone to cultivate radical Islam and terrorism, but they have been instrumental in recruitment towards those causes. Unfortunately, current policies toward ISIS and terrorism – drone strikes, economic sanctions, bombing campaigns – will likely only incite greater resentment to the West. It is doubtful that the West will able to chart a new framework toward the Middle East until it is fully prepared to admit and analyze the missteps and deliberate pain it has inflicted on the region.

While it may be too late for the West to win the war of ideas, there is still meaningful action it can take. The strife in the Middle East has less to do with the sectarian and ethnic differences there and more to do with the meddling of regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, all of whom have exploited these divisions from Baghdad to Baalbek to assert dominance in the local balance of power. Ideology may be food for the soul, but actual resources remains a primary ingredient for the mobilization of social movements. For various geopolitical reasons, however, the West has been disinclined to take action against those states pulling the purse strings of these social movements. This may begin to change, however, as jihadists begin to threaten the states patronizing them. Saudi Arabia may have an interest in boosting Sunni power abroad, but it has no desire to welcome home the jihadists who will be stateless once the Islamic State is defeated. If the Taliban manages to retake power in Afghanistan, much of the blame will be placed on Pakistan for failing to root them out of its western provinces. In the meantime, though, the West should come up with ways to utilize its substantial soft power and economic might to induce these major players from performing their own “great game” in the Middle East, which has been the source of so much agony and misery in recent years.

Ban the Bomb: On Nuclear Disarmament

“Behind the black portent of the new atomic age lies a hope which seized upon with faith, can work out salvation. If we fail, then we have damned every person to be the slave of fear. Let us not deceive ourselves: we must elect world peace or world destruction.” — Bernard Baruch

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit finished in Washington, D.C. today, with 240px-peace_symbol-svgvery minor achievements. The states involved made a series of commitments to increased nuclear security policies, most of which amount to sharing notes between governments and did not contain clear plans or definite deadlines for action. Critically, Russia declined to attend the summit, and security cooperation between the two countries with the largest nuclear weapon arsenal remains non-existent. This is despite the fact that both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have reason to fear a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of violent non-state actors like the Islamic State. Obviously the Crimea crisis and the Syrian civil war have soured U.S.-Russian relations, but even before recent events in the Ukraine, the focus has been on preserving the status quo, not making dramatic change. Washington and Moscow jointly threw their support behind arms reduction with the New START agreement in 2010, but effectively “only” lowered their respective stockpiles to 1,550 ready-to-use long-range nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, even this modest pledge has yet to be fully implemented, and is not set to be met until 2018 — at which time, hopefully, the foreign policy interests of the U.S. and Russia will be in good shape.

Nuclear proliferation has also become an issue in the U.S. election, with Republican 261px-mushroom_cloud-svgcandidate Donald Trump advocating that South Korea and Japan acquire nuclear weapons in order to make a world a safer place. As shocking as some media pundits thought this answer was, the notion of “nuclear stability” has long existed in academia. The scholar Kenneth Waltz has long argued within international relations that, since the world lacks a universal sovereign and countries must look after their own survival, countries should seek the capacity to defend their security concerns. From this Hobbesian perspective, nuclear proliferation is not just inevitable, but beneficial. Waltz argued in Foreign Affairs that Iran gaining the nuclear bomb would actually make the Middle East more peaceful, not less. Actual research, however, contradicts this thinking, and the official U.S. policy remains devoted to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that combats proliferation.

The U.S. is able to do this because, theoretically at least, it can project power through conventional weapons around the globe; we have army installations, air bases and carrier fleets in every region of the globe. Given our propensity for military interventions abroad, many countries have believed the guarantee that, should their territorial sovereignty be threatened, the U.S. would act against the aggressor. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the 320px-thumbnailU.S. did its best to become that missing universal sovereign: military operations in Kuwait, Haiti, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and of course Iraq, just to name a few. The American public, however, is losing its appetite for the long and bloody process of regime change. Looking at Libya and Syria, we observe that the U.S. has become more cautious in how it fights it enemies, relying more on cruise missiles and funding “moderate rebels.” When Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine, Washington sent Russia a scolding and little else. This alarmed many of those nations who have historically relied on the U.S. as their protector. If Russia could take territory from a U.S. ally without a U.S. military response, would Washington also be reluctant to attack Iran or China, or even North Korea, considering the heavy costs implied in a second Korean War — one in which Pyongyang itself has nuclear weapons that it regularly threatens to use?

To be clear, the U.S. no longer acting as a “universal sovereign” is desirable, and it is sensible that U.S. foreign policy has moved away from adventurism to encouraging other countries to look after their own security interests. The problem is that, for some countries, those “security interests” may involve nuclear proliferation. There is great public support in South Korea for acquiring a nuclear weapon like its northern neighbor. The Abe government in Japan has, to great domestic debate, increased defense spending and backed away from a position of pacifism — a hallmark of Japanese political culture, created by their past imperialist aggression as well as having the horror of nuclear weapons inflicted on them, the only people to have so far endured such suffering. Israel has long add numerous nuclear weapons, and ironically it is not the recent Iran nuclear deal that is most hazardous to peace, but the irrational reaction within Israel that it is has been abandoned by the U.S. and must defend itself against Tehran, perhaps by preemptive means. Of course, in addition to these simmering conflicts between states, there are also terrorist networks who already at war, for whom civilian casualties are not just “collateral damage,” but their actual targets. Given their tactics, nuclear weapons are arguably the most ideal form of weapon, given their indiscriminate and widespread destruction.

Once upon a time, it could be argued that nuclear weapons were an unpleasant relic of the Cold War, a necessary deterrent to a potential antagonist from using nuclear weapons first. As proliferation continues and, worryingly, becomes the norm, nuclear arms may become common, while still luxurious, features of countries that could be caught up in global flashpoints. The taboo surrounding nuclear weapons has weakened over time, and 187px-no_nukes_tidymanthe default position of disarmament is taken more and more for granted. What is needed is not just non-proliferation (especially in the form of Western finger-wagging at non-Western states) but actual, meaningful efforts by countries already with nuclear weapons to eliminate their stockpiles. Speeches and summits are not enough; ordinary people need to be involved in a resurgent disarmament movement that pressures decision-makers to accept abolishing nuclear arms. After all, even the ineffectual terms of New START barely passed conservative opposition in the U.S. Senate, and as long as nuclear weapons are perceived as required to be taken seriously in foreign policy matters, there is going to be stubborn resistance within the U.S. to nuclear disarmament.

There are a number of practical arguments to be made toward disarmament. Firstly, Russia and the U.S. by far have the most nuclear weapons, with around 7,000 each; France has the third most, with 300. If Russia and the U.S. could agree tomorrow to eliminate all save 300 of their nuclear weapons, that would be a substantial reduction. By doing so, they could then draw in other nations, such as France as well as Britain and China, to reduce and eventually safely destroy their nuclear weapons. Bringing Pakistan and India into the fold would be more difficult, given their respective history, and it would have to be a negotiation involving both. It is reasonable to presume that North Korea would not bend to international pressure to join a disarmament campaign, but the consequence would not be different than the status quo: the political and economic isolation of Pyongyang. We could even arrive at a time when the mere possession of a nuclear weapon is a violation of humanitarian law, which is not far from the International Court of Justice position. Granted, the U.S. has not traditionally needed legitimate reasoning to justify a war to remove “weapons of mass destruction,” but in a world where such weapons are earnestly deemed too dangerous to possess, we can imagine a scenario where a coalition of countries could indeed come together to forcibly disarm countries seeking the apocalypse.

What about stopping terrorists? The U.S. nuclear deterrent did not prevent al-Qaeda from attacking the World Trade Center in 2001, and even in the wake of that attack, the U.S. did not drop a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan — knowing that it would, quite rightly, be denounced for sacrificing countless civilians to take out a handful of terrorist cells. The same logic applies today: even though the Islamic State may claim to “own” a state, the U.S. will not slaughter millions of Iraqis, Syrians and Turks to attack a movement that exists more as an idea than as an institution or set of institutions. If anything, the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists to destroy all existing nuclear weapons and the material needed to create such weapons.

anti-nuclear_protest_at_the_nts_3While climate change is a huge threat to human existence, it seems strange that ecology and environmentalism should be more of a mainstream issue than nuclear disarmament given the unsettled times we live in. The tragic truth is that we will likely not see another major disarmament campaign until a nuclear weapon (or “dirty bomb” variant) is actually used in anger for the first time since 1945 — much in the way nuclear energy suddenly becomes an issue in the wake of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. The question is, sadly, how many hundreds or thousands will die when the unthinkable happens. The threat of nuclear holocaust, much like the dangers of climate change, is one all of humanity faces, and one that we must act on to secure the planet for future generations.


A Racket in Rio: Brazil’s Political Crisis

In the previous decade, Brazil was an emerging market success story. It weathered the 2008 financial crisis very well, boasting strong foreign reserves and relatively high 240px-brazil-luladasilva-02domestic ownership over bank assets. A high demand for commodities also ensured that the Brazilian economy was booming. Brazil’s president at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, enjoyed incredible support both at home and abroad, the warm and cuddly face of South American social democracy. A trade union official, Lula founded the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980 to promote progressive policies during a time of military dictatorship. Lula won the presidency in 2002 and oversaw the implementation of the “Zero Hunger” plan, which offers financial aid and subsidies to low-income working class people. The keystone of this plan is the Bolsa Familia cash transfer system that provides welfare assistance to impoverished families. According to one statistic, over a quarter of the poverty reduction recently seen in Brazil can be credited to Bolsa Familia. On the global stage, Brazil was one of the “BRIC” countries, heralded by Wall Street investment firms as the most accomplished of developing countries.

What went wrong? A few days ago Lula was detained for questioning in a massive corruption scandal that has rocked Brazil. The investigation, called “Car Wash” in English, 320px-manifestac3a7c3a3o_no_rio_de_janeiro_contra_corrupc3a7c3a3o_e_o_governo_dilma_em_13_de_marc3a7o_de_2016_28229is focused on the illegal use of funds connected to Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company. Lula’s hand-chosen successor to the presidency, fellow PT politician Dilma Rousseff, has sought to give him a ministerial position, presumably to protect him from investigation. A judge has blocked this move, and to make matters worse, anti-government protesters have been gathering in huge numbers to call for the resignations of accused politicians and especially the impeachment of Rousseff for wrongdoing. Indeed, a case of impeachment is being shepherded through Congress while, at the same time, she is accused of funding her 2014 electoral campaign with dirty money. If found guilty, not only would Rousseff fall from office, but so would her vice president, who represents the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a centrist party in coalition with the PT. Being non-ideological with a “catch-all” approach to coalitions, the PMDB has wheeling-and-dealing down to an art-form, so it is perhaps no surprise that they would prefer private advance to political principles. Indeed, several high-ranking PMDB partners in alliance with the PT have already been accused of corruption and involvement in the Petrobras embezzlement. For many hardcore devotees of Lula and the PT, however, the allegations leveled at their hero and his heir spark outrage and paranoia over a possible coup. On the other side of the spectrum, the majority of anti-government protesters calling for the ouster of Lula and Dilma have always been rate over the expansion of the Brazilian welfare state and “job-killing” economic regulation.

Patrick de Oliveira at Jacobin wrote last year about the conservative cottage industry that has taken root in Brazil, with their own right-wing celebrities in the style of Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. Criticism against the Lula and Rouseff governments have traditionally come from Brazilian conservatives, and with the “Car Wash” scandal, they may have not just the means to bring down the PT, but also to send its most well-known leaders to jail. The problem for them, however, is that there is no “good” right-wing party to fill the vacuum. The president of the largest conservative party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), is Aécio Neves, and he has been cited in several of the plea bargains already being settled as consequence of the corruption investigation. At the very least, PSDB leaders like Neves will have to be replaced with more “squeaky-clean” leaders if it wants to portray itself as the less venal alternative to the governance of the PT.

More than that, regular Brazilians need financial hope. Once a titan of the developing world, the Brazilian economy has become moribund; inflation is on the rise and getting higher. The country’s debt has been labeled “junk” by credit agencies. Industrial and 320px-petrobrc3a1s-cavalo-mecc3a2nico-3financial capital will not tolerate higher taxes on business and the wealthy, so even the PT briefly flirted with imposing harsh austerity measures on the country in order to reassure investors. Austerity, however, clashes with working class populism, which is what the PT has relied on as its soundest voting bloc. To their supporters, the PT has to at least keep up the appearance of being “for the worker,” even though in government they have governed as technocratic socially-conscious capitalists. It does seem doubtful, however, given their adroitness at playing the political game, that they will survive the “Car Wash” case.

This is not so much because of a specific scandal but how anti-PT forces in Brazil have come together to ensure “Car Wash” is fatal for Lula and Rouseff. As The Intercept reports, the right-wing media has been casting the spotlight fully on the anti-government protests, setting the narrative that order will only be restored when the PT leaves power. The main investigator behind the “Car Wash” case, who is supposed to be impartial, has been leaking illegal phone calls between Lula and Rouseff mere hours after they were recorded without a warrant. It would be incorrect and simplistic to render the images we see on television to an explosion of grassroots furor over poor leadership and betrayal of public trust, as nice as that story sounds. The truth is that, whatever the crimes of the PT, there is a real and organized campaign to force democratically-elected leaders from office because their center-left agenda has been detrimental for local business interests.

What next for Brazil? It is doubtful that Rouseff and the PT will recover from current events, and even if they could, no one should envy their limited options in attempting to adjust an economy in deep recession. Unless commodity prices rise to past levels and Petrobras is once again cleared of the cloud hanging over it, Brazil can do little else than seek revenue — most likely by spreading the pain around, as elites loathe to make their own sacrifices. This could very well mean that the poorest of the poor in Brazil could take the hit, after years of being lifted slightly higher under the PT policies. As ever, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Welcome to the desert of inequality.

Fear Itself: Trouble in Turkey

Every semester, I help oversee a general education course on democratization. Out of all 228px-recep_tayyip_erdoc49fan2c_polandthe misconceptions that inevitably arise, one of the most common (and frustrating) for me is the belief many students have that Islam is inherently hostile to democracy. Of course, this is not the fault of uncritical freshmen; the notion that liberalism is incompatible with Muslim beliefs has been articulated by luminary scholars ranging from Samuel P. Huntington to Slavoj Zizek. This is utter nonsense, of course. Religion in virtually every culture is utilized as an instrument of social control by traditionalists who want to maintain or restore autocratic forms of governance. Conservatives in the West often cite Christian reasoning in the imposition of restrictions on abortion, for example, but rarely do we hear the argument that Christianity is fundamentally inimical to democratic values. Granted, two of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Iran — feature a strong overlap of clerical and political power, but these countries are not indicative of the region (much less the entire Muslim world) anymore than the state politics of Kansas or Oklahoma are of national politics in the U.S.

(Israel also likes to claim it is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” a dubious claim given the poor political inclusion characteristic of parties that represent Palestinians, several of which are often banned or faced threats of being banned.)

20080104204454general_mustafa_kemalI usually pointed to Turkey as an example of a country with a majority Islamic population that has made great strides in embracing a multiparty democratic system. If anything, the main obstacle to Turkish democracy has not been radical Islam, but rather repeated interventions by the military, which has sought to preserve the secular nature of the state envisioned by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. In his desire to bring his country into a position of development relative to the West, Ataturk adopted a number of reforms, including the abolition of the caliphate and the separation of religion of politics. This principle has prompted generals to overthrow democratically elected governments and to ban political parties if it was believed they had an overly religious orientation.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) put a stop to this tendency. A social conservative party, the AKP has long resisted being described as “Islamic.” It represents the interests of the Sunni Muslim majority, and so in that sense, its ideology conforms to a traditionalist Sunni worldview. In terms of an actual agenda, however, the AKP has focused on the provision of public goods, encouraging economic growth, and good relations with Europe and the United States — not the imposition of sharia law, the restoration of the caliphate, or any such goals of Islamic State of al-Qaeda. When voters drifted away from the party last year, the AKP acknowledged its loss in the national legislature, going from the majority party in power to forming a minority government.

If these were positive signs for Turkish democracy, recent months indicate we should be 320px-s7000218far more pessimistic. The AKP-led government, back in a majority position, has detained journalists and academics critical of official policies. The President of Turkey and long-time AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said that freedom and democracy have “no value” in the country. A four-term prime minister, Erdogan has stated his intention to expand the executive power of his new office, creating a “super-presidency” not dissimilar to Putin-era Russia. Why this sudden shift away from democratic politics and the erosion of civil rights and personal freedoms? Where is the opposition to all this?

The answer is that Turks are trading their liberty for greater security. The country has rocked by a series of terrorist attacks, including several this weekend, in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The violence is spilling over from nearby Syria, where the chaotic civil war there has fueled two groups sharply opposed to the Turkish government: the Islamic State and Kurdish rebels seeking their own state. Despite the pervasive anxiety in the West over ISIS, it is actually the latter group that Erdogan and the AKP are most eager to confront.

The Kurds are an ethnic group found in Armenia, northern Iraq and eastern Turkey. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan achieved a sort of semi-autonomous existence within the federal Iraqi state. Turkish Kurds, however, have tasted little fruit in their struggle for self-determination. A militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has used violent tactics against the Turkish government since the 1980s; Ankara has relied on state-sponsored violence to quell the PKK, and prior to the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan and the splintering of Syria, the pendulum was swinging in Turkey’s favor. Turkey benefited from being a strategic ally of the U.S. in the Near East, and Washington saw little benefit in aligning with the PKK “terrorists.”

The rise of the Islamic State and its exploitation of the Syrian civil war has changed the 320px-ypg_tall_abyad_juin_201528429status quo dramatically. After wasting a considerable amount of money funding “moderate rebels,” the U.S. has come to recognize that Kurds in Syria have been the most effective at stemming the tide of ISIS expansion. Kurdish fighters belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have managed to set up a region called Rojava in northern Syria. Not only does the YPG find itself fighting ISIS soldiers, but it also has to deal with bombings launched by Turkey. Yes, Turkey is bombing its ally in the fight against ISIS, because the YPG and the PKK share a common goal: the foundation of an independent Kurdish state that encompasses all territory where the Kurds have sizable populations. The slew of recent suicide bombings linked to Kurdish independence groups has incensed most Turks to the point where they are willing to permit Erdogan his dream of a “super-presidency,” provided that he keeps them safe from the Kurdish “threat.”

Unfortunately, in addition to undermining Turkish democracy, this new war between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists also does damage to the significant inroads made by non-violent pro-Kurdish parties like the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the party that mainly benefited from the AKP’s electoral losses last year. The HDP, with its platform of social democratic economic policies and promises to seek better deals for ethnic minorities in Turkey (including the Kurds), reached a breakthrough by appealing to non-Kurdish voters. Sadly, events largely outside of the control of the HDP have sent it into retreat; much as all Muslims were (and continue to be) in the United States post-9/11, the Kurds are the scapegoat for the fear and resentment paralyzing Turkish politics.

The Arab Spring of a few years ago flourished in countries that were internally troubled but still relatively peaceful; protests died on the vine, however, in countries beset by external and domestic violence, as people preferred placid dictatorship to the whirlwind of a changing society. It is an ongoing tragedy that the Kurds have failed to realize the full dream of their self-determination, made all the more regretful but the setbacks of the HDP and the political calculus that has turned Turkish munitions against the YPG and not fully against ISIS. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s “super-presidency” has not yet been realized; hopefully the autocratic encroachment can be reversed rather than consolidated.