Blair’s gospel of despair

With its reliance on vacuous religiosity, Tony Blair's speech to the Labour Party conference exposed the moral bankruptcy of the global capitalist order in the wake of 11 September.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

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In his widely acclaimed speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton on 2 October 2001, UK prime minister Tony Blair described the terrorist attacks on the USA on 11 September as ‘a turning point in history’.

He set out his agenda for a new world order in which good – peace, social justice, environmental reform – would triumph over evil. This programme was to begin with a military attack on Afghanistan and continue with a more interventionist Western policy towards the Middle East, Africa, the world. Blair made it clear that the ethical foreign policy declared by New Labour when it came to power in 1997 is now going to be pursued with evangelical fervour.

It has been observed that Blair’s attempts to link the response to 11 September with a range of other issues, and to depict Western militarism as a force for righteousness in the world, are unlikely to survive the first air strike in Afghanistan. The inevitable carnage of impoverished non-combatants, the destabilising consequences in the Muslim world, and the probability of significant Western casualties are likely to exacerbate divisions that are already apparent within the fragile anti-terrorism alliance and within Western countries themselves.

Even the USA – Britain’s closest ally – has a different international agenda and is unlikely to indulge for long Blair’s sanctimonious and interfering internationalism.

But Blair’s speech, in its elevation of religion into an even more prominent role in public life and international affairs, revealed even more profound problems facing the Western elites. Declaring that Jews, Muslims and Christians were ‘all children of Abraham’, he announced that this was ‘the moment to bring the faiths closer in understanding of our common values and heritage, a source of unity and strength’ (1).

Two hundred years after the bourgeois revolutionaries in France promised to ‘strangle the last aristocrat with the guts of the last priest’, the leaders of the capitalist world are so desperate to find sources of unity and strength that they are obliged to lean on the monotheistic faiths that predate the emergence of capitalism by more than a thousand years.

Like Blair’s attempt to reassure his Brighton audience that ‘our way of life is a great deal stronger and will last a great deal longer than the actions of fanatics’, his earnest piety succeeds only in exposing the insecurity of the Western establishment. (Similarly, President George Bush’s gesture of eating in a Washington restaurant, in the hope of encouraging Americans that it was safe for normal social life to resume three weeks after the attacks, only drew attention to the intensity of popular anxieties.)

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union gave undisputed global hegemony to the capitalist order, its leading representatives can present no independent claim for the loyalty or even respect of the masses. So they cling on to the vestiges of legitimacy provided to earlier elites by religious faiths, which retain some popular support, notably among the more conservative and insecure sections of society.

One consequence of the public promotion of a backward-looking religiosity is that it inevitably fosters fundamentalist tendencies. At times of social instability, sections of society which feel threatened and insecure not uncommonly turn to fundamentalist versions of prevailing religious traditions.

In a chapter on ‘the chiliasm of despair’ in his famous book The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson observed that millenarian sects tended to emerge in nineteenth-century England at moments when the trade unions and other labour movement organisations were in retreat.

Similar trends are apparent on a much wider scale today, within all major religions – strongest, not in the Muslim East, but in the Christian West, most conspicuously in the USA where fundamentalist Protestantism has become a major social and political force over the past 20 years (with the collusion, if not outright encouragement, of the establishment). It is also America where militantly orthodox trends in Judaism have flourished, extending their influence to Israel where they now hold significant political power and exercise it against any concession to the Palestinians.

No doubt most devotees of fundamentalist religion do not resort to terrorism. But cults and sects within these traditions can readily find sanction in their sacred texts for extreme gestures of violence and self-sacrifice in the service of the higher cause to which they believe they have been called.

As the attacks on the USA dramatically confirmed, modern society provides the means of mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale. But the psychology of fanaticism, nourished by faiths that set a higher value on the eternal life of the soul beyond death than on our corporeal existence in this world, is common to all forms of religious fundamentalism. What’s more, while it is possible to trace the behaviour of the hijackers to that of Islamic zealots from the Middle Ages to the suicide bombers of the West Bank and Gaza today, it is easier to find parallels much closer to home in the USA.

The Oklahoma bombing in 1995 was first blamed on Islamic terrorists. When it was discovered that it was in fact carried out by Timothy McVeigh, there was little interest in tracing his links to the fundamentalist militias that helped to form his outlook, if not to make his bomb. In many ways, the 11 September terrorists have as much in common with the Branch Davidian sect members who died at Waco, Texas, the man who bombed Soho, Brixton and Brick Lane in London, or the Aum Shinrikyo sect who released Sarin on the Tokyo underground, or even those cult members who committed mass suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, as they have with traditions of Islamic zealotry.

Apocalyptic nihilism is an outlook that has been fostered by the profound demoralisation and atomisation of modern capitalist society. It is strongest, not in its peripheral regions, but at its heart – in the USA.

The defeat of secular nationalist movements in the Middle East over the postwar decades has led to the emergence of fundamentalist trends in Islam. As commentators have pointed out, during the Cold War years, these were often encouraged, if not directly sponsored by the USA and other Western powers as a counter to Soviet influence. Critics of the reactionary policies of the Taliban in Afghanistan prefer to ignore that its particular variant of Islam – Wahhabism – is directly derived from that of the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia, a key Western client and ally in the region.

Though there has been much discussion in the West over the past decade of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it remains a strikingly feeble and incoherent force. It appears to be strongest in countries that are on the verge of disintegration (Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen), or in countries where it is enforced by a despotic regime (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). Iran, whose 1979 Islamic revolution appeared to herald a new threat to Western dominance in the region, has signalled its repudiation of this legacy by approving the impending onslaught on Afghanistan.

The emerging accounts of the 11 September hijackers confirm that they were more a product of Western civilisation than of the Muslim world (3). Though it seems that most of them had their roots in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states (where strict official Islamic orthodoxy coexists with extreme corruption and decadence), their formative years were spent in the West.

They were fluent in English and German, educated in universities at Britain and Germany and the USA, drank alcohol in bars, had local girlfriends. The profile of one alleged lieutenant in Osama bin Laden’s Al Quaeda network published in The Sunday Times reveals a studious boy from a middle-class family in the eastern suburbs of London who first encountered militant Islam when he became a student at the prestigious London School of Economics. It appears that the influence of Islamic fundamentalism is greater within Western society, where it is nurtured by a network of (Saudi-financed) mosques, local government projects and student societies, than it is in the Middle East.

One of the key ironies of Blair’s speech was his insistence that ‘we celebrate the diversity in our country’ – as the official ideology of multiculturalism is a key contributor to the fundamentalist outlook.

This is clearest in the USA where it has supplanted the earlier ideology of the melting pot, the spirit of ‘e pluribus unum’, through which the dynamism of the new world assimilated immigrants from the old world into the vibrant culture of American capitalism. No doubt this process was always partial (conspicuously excluding black Americans until recently), and it was always contested (by reactionary nativists and traditionalist immigrants alike), yet even its partial achievement helped to make the USA the most successful capitalist nation in history.

The shift towards multiculturalism reflects the loss of confidence of American society in its capacity to move forward through a process of integration. Instead it marks an adaptation to the tendencies towards fragmentation and conflict. Posing as a tolerant acceptance of difference, multiculturalism ratifies and institutionalises fixed identities (of race, ethnicity, nationality). Giving up on the hope of transcending particular differences that inspired earlier generations of Americans, it marks a retreat into the tribal ghettos of the past. The ghetto nourishes a defensive and backward-looking mentality. And it also, notoriously, nourishes fundamentalism.

For an illustration of this process here in the UK, we need look no further than Bradford. On the day after the attacks in the USA, it was announced that a ‘devastating’ appendix to Herman Ouseley’s report on race relations in Bradford, was finally to be published (2). This appendix castigates successive council leaderships in Bradford, who because of their commitment to multiculturalism refused to criticise the ‘self-segregation’ of the elders of the Muslim community. It charges some Muslim elders with ‘welcoming self-segregation and turning a blind eye to criminal activities by a minority of their community’s youth, out of a concern to preserve Islam and their traditional way of life’.

This policy of segregation in the name of multiculturalism has two readily apparent consequences. First, it is likely to intensify tensions between white and Asian communities in Bradford – as concerned by the riots in summer 2001. Second, if young people of Asian origin are restricted to a culture defined in terms of Islam, the anger that results from their sense of exclusion from the mainstream (in terms of unemployment, housing, etc) is likely to be expressed in adherence to increasingly militant forms of Islam. For some, this means joining protests against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and celebrating the notoriety of Osama bin Laden. A few may well feel the call to make a more personal contribution towards the jihad.

Blair’s crusading moral tone at Brighton has won comparisons with the great nineteenth-century Liberal leader Gladstone. But the contrast between Gladstone’s muscular Christianity and Blair’s insipid religiosity reveals much about the decline of Britain’s imperial elite over the past century.

Gladstone would have more readily recognised Blair’s commitment to the capitalist market than he would his concept of Christianity-lite. Whereas Blair is an Anglican who worships in Catholic churches – and now carries the Koran as well as the Bible on his travels – Gladstone was a hardline Protestant of whom Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley would be proud. In terms which would at a stroke unravel the Western alliance against Afghanistan, Gladstone once denounced the Catholic Church as ‘an Asian monarchy: nothing but one giddy height of despotism and one dead level of religious subservience’ (4).

In his 1876 pamphlet on The Bulgarian Massacres and the Question of the East, a polemic on the slaughter of Christian Bulgarians by Moslem Turks, he condemned the Turks as savages with ‘abominable and bestial lusts’. When Gladstone authorised the brutal suppression of a revolt in Egypt in 1882, it would not have occurred to him to express his respect for Islam and invite a Muslim cleric to his press conference.

When Victorian imperialists went to war in the Middle East they went with confidence in the Empire, the Queen and the Church of England. Today, British society is ashamed of its imperial past, embarrassed by the royal family and indifferent towards the established church. (Indeed, the little-noticed election of a Catholic to lead the Conservative Party confirms the establishment’s retreat from the robust Protestant values long identified with the rise of British capitalism to the obscurantist faith of its feudal forebears.)

If Victorian society regarded Catholicism as doctrinally authoritarian and politically disloyal, it viewed Islam with contempt as the fatalistic and submissive outlook of the decaying Ottoman empire. Today’s ruling elite is so insecure in its own position that it feels obliged to recruit any source of religious devotion to its aid and to display respect towards any congregation in the hope of consolidating its popular approval. Hence the ostentatious displays of sensitivity towards Islam, the apologies over words like ‘crusade’, or terms like ‘infinite justice’, even when it is going to war against Islamic fundamentalism.

The pervasive relativism in the Western response to 11 September reflects the demise of the sort of commitment to church and state that once motivated the imperial mission. The fact that even the fundamentalist Christian churches in the USA interpreted the terrorist attacks as God’s punishment for the excessive materialism of American society (as symbolised by the Manhattan skyline) revealed a degree of guilt about capitalist enterprise that would not have existed in the Victorian era.

Their further inclination to blame homosexuals and abortionists simply confirmed their determination to take advantage of the crisis to settle old scores. The response of some secular liberals, as expressed in the UK Guardian and the New Statesman, to blame the victims (for their complicity in the crimes of US corporate capitalism and its global activities) reveals the relativist response at its most degenerate.

Blair concluded his speech by appealing to the ‘common values and heritage’ of the three great monotheistic religions, but did not specify what these were. The common heritage of these religions is, in the modern world, one of strife and conflict. Even a cursory acquaintance with these traditions reveals profound ethical differences. Take, for example, as guidelines in the current situation, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (Exodus 21:24) and ‘vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord’ (Romans 12:19). For Blair, Christianity (like social democracy, for him the terms seem to be interchangeable) can be reduced to the aspiration for a lost sense of community in a chaotic world. But, whereas old-style religion offered some explanation of suffering and the hope of redemption, if not in this world, at least in the next, third-way religion offers only the prospect of feeling better about yourself through the secular rituals of therapy.

Blair’s speech exposes the moral bankruptcy of the global capitalist order in response to the events of 11 September. The growing reliance of the Western establishment on vacuous religiosity underlies, not only its paralysis in face of the terrorist assault, but also the fact that the despair of our society increasingly takes the form of such barbarous acts.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Wishful thinking, by Josie Appleton

One thing that did not change in 2001, by Mick Hume

The fundamentalist question, by Josie Appleton

The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik

Made in the USA?, by Josie Appleton

spiked-issue: After 11 September

spiked-issue: Race

(1) See the text of Tony Blair’s speech at the 2001 Labour party conference

(2) Some Bradford Muslims ‘act like colonists’, Martin Wainwright, Guardian, 12 September 2001

(3) See ‘Made in the USA?’ by Josie Appleton

(4) Roy Jenkins, Gladstone, p391

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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