Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

July 28, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I read the July 9th article ("Condemned to Relive the Past") on the Democratic Underground website and instantly tied it in with the horrible thought that the recent bombings in London were designed by different terrorists, ones who wanted to change Tony Blair's G8 agenda. The same people who want the world to forget starving Africans and global warming and want the world to stay focused on the war against terrorists. Just an evil thought from a very skeptical citizen. Do you think this is a possible scenario?

Constable, NY

Dear Jeanne,

Auntie's answer to your question is "Yes, but..." I agree that the bombings in London (and in Egypt, too) were perpetrated by people who want to take the world's mind off problems like hunger, disease, and possibly irreparable damage to the environment. But convenient as it is for many leaders of well-off nations to be able to shove such intractable and expensive problems down the priorities ladder, I don't think that those same leaders were involved in bombing conspiracies to get themselves off the hook.

Rather, the bombings were the work of those who wanted to call attention to themselves in connection with a whole stew of other issues. History offers us many parallels, when the world has to cope with vast economic disparities, new communications (and other) technologies, major demographic shifts, and cataclysmic geopolitical realignments, all at once. Since the buildup and interaction of these factors effectively takes place in slow motion, it's often easier to attribute the resulting violence and disorder to immediately visible political factors. It's especially tempting to do so because it's way easier to vote some individual out of office than engage in the long-term, sustained organizing and effort required to change how people think and respond to the world around them.

The current wave of ideological violence is very similar to the wave of violence that accompanied the economic and political restructuring of rapidly-industrialized societies and their neighbors, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rise of the labor movement, the backlash against an increasingly small elite controlling an increasingly large percentage of critical economic resources, and the anomie and alienation in response to the rapid pace of change produced many violence-oriented extremist factions in the larger movement for change. "Anarchist bomb-throwers" are not a twenty-first or even twentieth-century invention.

Arguments continue about whether the violent extremists helped to speed the process of social evolution (by inspiring a fear of worse outcomes if no changes were made) or to retard it (by inspiring a loathing of the changes being advocated by the larger, non-violent, non-extremist liberal factions, and a conservative reaction). Persuasive cases have been made for both viewpoints, and the same cases can probably be applied to the current violence.

And just as the political/moral justifications for today's violence are attributed to grand ideals, so were the bombs then thrown in the name of the International Revolution that would lift all workers into a common brotherhood that would take political control. An ideal that essentially ignored the real wishes of the people in whose name the bombs were thrown, most of whom simply wanted better pay and working conditions, not World Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In fact, some of the greatest hostility to the bomb-throwing factions came from those who were supposed to benefit.

There was much speculation, at the time, about the possibility that the leaders among the violence-oriented groups weren't really ideologically motivated, that they were pawns of various national governments or businesses, making crass material gains while their followers ended up in jail or dead in the name of their grand gestures. But those links were never established. Sound familiar?

Today's terrorists appear to be cut from the same pattern. They are ideologues with an impossibly grand vision. The achievement of that vision would, coincidentally, probably mean that they would be leaders in the new order toward which they are working, but that leadership is not the primary motivation for all of them. They are able to inspire others with this vision, partly because a complex web of economic, demographic, and sociopolitical factors has created a large pool of vulnerable individuals.

While some of the factors that make up this equation cannot be controlled at all, others can be changed, although the interaction among the factors is complicated. Unintended consequences will be inevitable. But we have little chance of nudging things in a positive direction until we look honestly at what is happening and why, and accept it for what it is, rather than trying to make political hay.

I wish there were easier solutions, Jeanne, but I don't see them. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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