The West’s suicidal tendencies


Over one year after the September 11 attacks, it may be possible to actually reflect on this cataclysmic assault. In this very provisional contribution to an ongoing inquiry, I wish to show that with its response to the attacks, the Western world seems to threaten the survival of mankind in a new way, in addition to the destruction of the environment and war.

The atomization of Western society and the mechanization of human life have given individuals — now emancipated from social control and projected out of their original social contexts — the means to destroy human life, possibly on a broader scale than on September 11, with the help of nuclear power, biological, chemical and genetic weapons.

I would claim that the perpetrators of the attacks are themselves representatives of our civilization and its two main features: individualism and technology. The attacks thus reflect suicidal tendencies of capitalist society.

On the surface, the perpetrators do not seem to belong to “our” society, because they claim to follow a version of Islam and to be part of a community inspired by that faith. But what I consider decisive for qualifying human beings and their lives as individualistic is their material, rather than spiritual, practices. Western society’s individualism stems not from differences in faith and philosophy, but because contemporary people are increasingly deprived of quasi-organic bonds with the natural and human environment — through family, village or tribe — that characterize traditional societies. Instead, in our increasingly atomized society, humans rely on each other less and less; everyone is supposed to obtain her own living.

Similarly, I do not assume that the terrorists were non-individualistic, just because they said they were and because they opposed the Western way of life. If we examine some of those presumably responsible for the attacks, we find (according to the information available) that they were living in a completely unnoticeable way in industrialized countries like Germany and studying at Western universities. Even if their perfect integration is a result of their ambition to hide aggressive intentions, succeeding in such concealment entailed a high degree of self-mastery — the very quality that epitomizes capitalist individuals.

Moreover, the terrorists used modern technologies: airplanes filled with jet fuel as weapons, skyscrapers as targets and mathematical formulae determining the point on the buildings, 20 percent from the top, to maximize destruction. Their preparation for the attacks — traveling, taking flight lessons, studying plane routes, airport security and sky control and coordinating themselves — required the setting of goals, long-term thinking, strategic planning, self-discipline and other features of what Max Horkheimer called instrumental reason, which defines, along with other aspects, the modern subject.

Instrumental reason doesn’t leave much place for feelings like sorrow, fear, rage and shame. Instead, it rationalizes and represses feelings, like hatred, which may have motivated the perpetrators. As psychoanalytic theory shows, the rationalization and repression of emotions is one of the characteristic aspects of Western civilization.

Nothing distinguishes the perpetrators’ way of behavior from what Western military commanders, secret agents, political leaders and others do — except their faith. But this specific motivation does not alter the individualistic and technological character of their behavior. It is merely a particular way of searching for, expressing and justifying power, since claiming one’s religious faith in public implies the desire to make other people adopt it.

John Le Carré has described Osama bin Laden as “a man of homoerotic narcissism”; “he radiates with every self-adoring gesture an actor’s awareness of the lens,” displaying “his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight.” Narcissism is perhaps another feature of capitalist society: The isolated individual may need public recognition in order to compensate for the loss of the aforementioned quasi-organic relationships.

For all these reasons, the perpetrators were part of our Western societies, in the sense that they were their products and that they behaved like us. I agree with Indian writer Arundhati Roy: bin Laden is indeed “the American president’s dark Doppelgänger.”

Using a very provisional analogy, some currents of Islamist fundamentalism may be understood as a sort of fascism, with respect to their objectives, means and recruitment. Their goals could be, as in fascism, the industrial modernization of society, control and domination of women and elimination of criticism. Their tools may comprise, a superficial communitarian stance against capitalism and the liberal nation-state, designed to conceal increased exploitation of workers and women. Recruitment is based on a profound feeling of humiliation — such as by Western society today — and consists of attracting well-educated elites frustrated with traditional politics.

Now fascism, I would claim, is not the opposite, but rather the continuation and modernization of capitalism and individualism under extreme circumstances. Fascism is the brutalized but superficial revolt of the atomized masses against their existential loneliness.

U.S. intelligence agencies received several advance warnings of the terrorist attacks. Some elements in the Bush administration may have even facilitated the activities of the hijackers in order to obtain a suitable pretext for American military intervention in the Middle East. Confirmed, these allegations would reinforce a shocking complicity between the perpetrators and factions in the Bush administration. However, I am not a friend of a conspiratory perspective. That is why thorough investigations are urgent.

Pollmann is a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School