As the Iraqi campaign drew to the end of its first phase, George W. Bush exuberantly declared: ‘these are good times in the history of Freedom’ and his supporters around the globe agreed. ‘Freedom’ — from ‘they hate us for our freedom’ to ‘freedom (formerly French) fries’ — had already become the number one piece of political kitsch in the wake of September 11, but has now become a mantra to justify almost anything. The rhetoric serves as an ideology which can be said to conceal the destructive underside of US policy. But this is the soft critique of freedom. It addresses a very familiar use of ideology. The uses of freedom today are actually more complex than this.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helps us to see this more complex side of freedom when he identifies and defends a practical relation between freedom and destruction. When the first instances of looting emerged in Iraq, he infamously claimed that the looters were expressing their freedom. He accepted a relation between freedom and destruction as the price of freedom. While such a claim would not do well in Philosophy I (where liberty would be distinguished from licence) Rumsfeld may have stumbled upon a significant truth about the new situation. What has emerged is a relation between a practical everyday freedom and destructive chaos that is shocking to our understanding of the tradition of freedom. Freedom has always had the potential to run riot but now the tradition is being turned on its head.
Empirically, it is not difficult to identify the chaos that has emerged from the first stage of the US campaign in Iraq. It has already called out new acts of terror in Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Iraq itself is a cesspool of disorganised anarchy, an anarchy attributable to the irresponsibility of the occupying powers. These developments gain some meaning when Donald Rumsfeld says that he does not wish the US to occupy Iraq for very long. While no doubt this will leave unresolved problems for the US interest in the control of Iraqi oil, it is becoming clear that Rumsfeld and his fellow neoconservatives have an agenda that does not fit with the history of occupation. He is ready to move on to the next piece of the action regardless of the chaos he leaves behind. He is the champion of the super-charged blitzkrieg, a contemporary Genghis Khan with a new technology. But what is the actual relation of freedom to this process of destruction?
The importance of a certain concept of freedom to the neoconservative circles directing much of current US foreign policy can hardly be doubted. In part this draws on a long history of freedom as an orienting value, one they correctly relate back to the establishment of the United States. And, while a little bashful about the terminology, they do not hesitate to associate this quest with that of Empire itself. Thomas Donnelly, the author of Rebuilding America’s Defenses for the leading US think-tank ‘The Project for the New American Century’, sees that association in positive terms. The term Thomas Jefferson used, Donnelly reminds us, was ‘empire of liberty’. Which is to say Donnelly’s concept is one of an ever-expanding liberty within an umbrella provided by the United States. Both the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq are expressions of this ‘non-negotiable demand’ for the American principles of liberty and justice that is made practical in the decision ‘to preserve and extend Pax Americana throughout the Middle East and beyond’. When George Bush recently offered his vision of a free trade zone between the US and the Middle East, he may have been naive but he was not kidding.
Donnelly in particular, but neoconservatives more generally, regard the notion of freedom as an unchanging one. In their view the US was founded upon the same principles that are pursued today. Their practice tells a different story.
The freedom that emerged in Jefferson’s day was relative in institutional terms. Those institutions that promoted liberty — legal institutions that promoted the rights of the individual, political institutions that allowed the expression of individual power, the market of Adam Smith — were relative to a vast array of community-based and other institutions that worked on different principles. The individual often found that the center of their lives — family and community — did not especially respect their individuality, but where these were supplemented by institutionalised liberty the resulting mix gave a unique expression of constraint combined with choice: a liberal society.
Whatever is to be said about this liberal society it does not offer the freedom championed by Rumsfeld, Bush and the neoconservatives. Their liberty is much more total. They are the Right Wing ideologues of the high-tech revolution. The liberty of the internet, for example, represents a change of society of immense proportions, a society of constant movement freed from the constraints of place. But the high-tech that makes the internet possible also supports a whole range of institutions that now hold complete sway in the United States and also increasingly dominate contemporary reality around the world. Now the market is so powerful it no longer acts as a supplement to community-based institutions. Rather it reaches into the family and community sectors and takes over their functions. We are ‘freed’ from the need for community. This is a liberty of a new kind. It is one that is not very responsible at all, because there is no longer a relation between institutions of liberty and other institutions that represent community. Now it is the much more technologised relation of freedom and surveillance that increasingly displaces the civil and liberal freedoms of the liberal era.
The revamping of these institutions by high technology culminates in the new military campaign. The reconstruction of the military by high-tech allows much Shock and Awe and massive destructive power, but it assumes no community responsibility. There are no positive actions that follow the destruction. Certainly, not unlike the aftermath of the campaign in Afghanistan, the complexity of the various groupings within Iraq is of little interest. Rather than be bored with the grind of building everyday institutions, Rumsfeld wants to move on to his next target. He has the mentality of the participant of a computer game. The new acts of terror in Saudi Arabia and Algeria triggers for him new meaning. It is one to be expressed by a focus on the next stage of invasion: is it to be Syria or Iran?
The world has never seen a force like this, one that combines a certain kind of freedom with the potential for complete destruction. Certainly it has no substantial interest in political liberty, while the unspeakable outcomes of nuclear war bring no fear to these warriors. Antony Beevor, the author of Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945, recently commented that the conditions for a public to support almost any policy are a combination of fear and hatred. Fear and Hatred: these have certainly gained ascendency amongst the US public since September 11. In the hands of Bush, Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives we have to prepare for the worst over the coming period. They combine the irresponsibility of the new freedom with the opportunities provided by a malleable public unable to resist their strategies even as they threaten hell on earth.