Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Middle East and intervention

It is one of those weird things about writing this blog that the less offensive and more considered a post, the less feedback and smaller audience it receives. It is, of course, entirely possible that your humble Devil's audience consists entirely of people who find the word "cunt" deeply amusing—and let's face it, of all the swearwords out there, it is probably the only one that still causes most people any kind of offence and is, by virtue of this, hilarious—but, just occasionally, your Devil likes to try to write a post that consists of something more than the ritualised—and deserved—insulting of whichever NuLabour minister happens to have caught his baleful eye at any one time.

It could be, of course, that my "philosophical" posts are either merely tedious or so wrong that no one can be arsed to engage with them. Should this be the case it is, in many ways, something of a pity as it is how I started out. I still believe that my predictions about Iran's involvement in the Iraq insurgency will be proved correct and that the conclusion—that the insurgency in Iraq will not subside until Iran feels secure enough, i.e. when it has nuclear weaponry, to stop harrying the Coalition—is still correct. For sure though, only time will tell.

Notwithstanding all of this, your humble Devil occasionally enjoys sitting back making the odd observation from a rather less jaundiced view than is usual; apart from anything else, even I cannot keep up the level of anger—or, indeed, originality— to pull the fat, jug-eared cunt apart every single day: one simply finds oneself repeating the same swearwords again and again and, no matter how many times one defends democracy, it is difficult to do so when the public still have not joined together to hang this rude, ignorant Turk from the nearest tree.

As such, one's mind turns to regimes that are even more appalling than ours: after all, Princess Toni and Co. have had to forcibly tear down centuries of traditional rights and legal niceties to force a near-police state on us; measures that have been stoutly resisted—to the chagrin of those ludicrous fools who still carry the "Elect The Lords" buttons on their websites and for some reason assume that the fact that a certain knave is elected by a bunch of slack-jawed tossers, whose only interest is in whether their football team won today, means that that person is automatically suitable for the post into which he was elected—by our unelected representatives in the Upper House. Thus, watching our civil liberties torn down and shat upon by NuLabour, although shocking to us, can only be watched in envy by those who have never, ever had those freedoms in the first place.

And this discourse draws us neatly onto the Middle East; at which point, I am afraid, I need to go off at something of a tangent once more...

If you have never read the Culture novels of the science-fiction writer Iain M Banks, can I heartily recommend that you do so? The beauty of these novels is that the Culture themselves are effectively omnipotent and thus, unlike many low-grade sci-fi novels, the technology becomes utterly unimportant in terms of narrative. The stories always come down to the nature of the people involved—and many of those characters who are proactive are not, themselves Culture citizens—and politics.

Most especially, they deal with the Culture organisations known as Contact and Special Circumstances. These organisations might be roughly equated, I suppose, with the CIA (especially during the Cold War); they are organisations that, logically enough, deal with the "contacting" of civilisations that are, in the main, less advanced than the Culture's own.

The Culture's usual principle can be broadly equated with that of Star Trek's Prime Directive, which states the following.
The Prime Directive dictates that there be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society, chiefly meaning that no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races.

Where Contact (C) and Special Circumstances (SC) differ in this philosophy is in the second part of the Directive.
It also forbids any effort to improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept totally secret.

C and SC will interfere to try, as they see it, to improve societies. The subtle way in which they occasionally do so, and over the period of many years, can be easily illustrated in Inversions, a novel that would only be recognised by those who have read other Culture novels and who would recognise the protagonists as being from that society (indeed, so subtle is it that I recently found yet more clues, even on my fifth reading of the novel). At other times they are less oblique, as in The Player Of Games or Use Of Weapons (Zakalwe is one of the coolest literary creations ever), and at other times—as in Look To Windward—the development goes hideously, disastrously wrong. Whichever way it happens, the Culture—unlike Star Trek's Starfleet—thinks that active intervention is better than benign neglect. They will intervene to mould a society in the way that they think is best for that particular culture.

To come back to modern politics, with a few exceptions, the most powerful and richest societies on earth are capitalist democracies, with democracy (in whatever form) being the operative word. The main societies that buck this trend are China (whom I shall discount for now, though I shall return to it in a later post) and the oil-rich nations. These are, in general, the nations of the Middle East, which incorporate Iran, Iraq, the United arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, amongst others.

All of these nations are—or in Iraq's case, were—essentially dictatorships; totalitarian governments (which dictatorships always end up being, even if the original aim was not to be so, e.g. the Roman caesars) as rich as these are rare. Why should this be so?

In "free" countries, which are generally represented by democracies of some sort, the dissent that leads to innovation is allowed. Since there is a mechanism for removing an administration politically, that government has little to gain by oppressing its people; the people would simply vote them out of office (fingers crossed for the next British election, eh?). Therefore, it is in these government's interest to ensure the relative happiness of its people which, in capitalist societies, generally means ensuring that people have enough money to buy those things that make their lives more pleasant.

In order to be able to buy those things, innovators must invent them. Innovators are often mavericks, people who do not conform to societal norms (or at least their views do not). Think, for instance, of Gallileo or Newton. Is it any coincidence that the greatest technological and scientific advances—the ones that lasted—were made in the most "free" societies: Britain, one of the first European democracies, led much of the technical, scientific and engineering innovation for a couple of centuries.

And it is not enough to allow the innovators to innovate: there must be freedom of people to invest in those innovations as well. Brunel, those an engineering genius, would be almost unknown had his financiers not had the freedom to back him. If you want an example of how this might affect the development of a society, ask yourself how many totally original concepts were actually brought to fruition by Stalin's Soviet Union.

Totalitarian regimes, in contrast, cannot allow this questioning of the status quo: once people start to question the nature of the world around them, they then start to question the way in which they are governed; and, of course, whether those that govern them are the most suitable people to do so. Thus, totalitarian regimes are pretty much characterised by their suppression of free speech and attempted suppression of free thought. When unorthodox ideas cannot be communicated, let alone financially backed and developed, then innovation does not—cannot—happen.

The end result of this is that, in Europe at least, technical innovation has had to go hand-in-hand with political development. As people have become more free, so more inventions have been realised, the easier (and cheaper) people's lives have become and thus the richer they have become. To tie this together in the most elementary sense, in the West, how rich people have become has been intimately tied in with how "free" they are.

In the Middle East, this has not happened. Why?

The Middle Eastern countries that I have cited are all, in essence, totalitarian regimes. These regimes should either have been toppled years ago, or they should—much like Africa—be living in the direst poverty. Why are they not? The answer is simple: oil.

The West's reliance on carbon fuels started with the industrial revolution, and was initially predicated on coal. However, with the expansion of the British Empire and the discovery of oil—which was not only easier to extract than coal, but was also easier to store, transport and use—those coutries with oil reserves were suddenly sitting on vast reserves of what was known as "black gold". When the Empire contracted and, eventually withered away, the regimes that took over those reserves were suddenly immensely rich. And that was not the only thing.
In a recent pub debate, DK asked me why I was so pissed off at the rich making money. My slurred reply was that the gains to the rich give them increased power to develop institutional structures which prevent those at the bottom making a better life for themselves.

They obtained power. It is not difficult to prove the maxim that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", and this is what those potentates now had. With a bastardisation of Islam to use as a tool of easy populace supppression, the ruling parties were able to entrench themselves in their towers; but this was only possible as long as the flow of oil continued.

Furthermore, however, they have not have to invent anything. All of the inventing has been done by the Europeans, and the oil-rich countries are able simply to buy all of the innovations that they need. Thus, in these countries, technical development has not had to go hand-in-hand with societal or political development. People have things to buy and, largely speaking, they have the money with which to purchase these goods. Where they do not, Islam's promise of a better future (or after) life in return for abstinence in this one—a principle largely shared by Christianity but more harshly proscripted in the radical forms of Islam such as the Wahabiism endemic in Saudi—is able to keep the people subjugated, if not happy (although it could be argued that what religion actually does is to make people happy with what would otherwise be considered a shitty lot).

How does this relate to the Culture of Iain M Banks? It relates in this way: the West's thirst for, and reliance on, oil could be considered equivalent to a catastrophic intervention in a totally separate culture, thus entirely affecting their development by artificially accelerating their technical advancement without forcing upon them the need to develop either culturally or politically. Thus we end up with totalitarian regimes that are effectively all-powerful within their own spheres of influence and, by virtue of the fact that the West is reliant on their oil, immune to anything but the most stringent, i.e. military, action by the only power that might practically remove them. One could look at it as being similar to an alien culture giving the atom bomb technology to the Nazis in 1936 or, more pertinently, to William the Conqueror.

In conclusion, the failure of the Middle East to develop the "freedoms" that we, generally, take for granted in the West, is entirely down to the fact that we need the oil that comes out of their ground. This is, surely, one of the most compelling arguments for finding alternative sources of power; for as long as we need oil, the Middle Eastern countries will not develop because—and I apologise for borrowing a biological term here—there is no selective pressure for them to do otherwise.

What we in the West must face is that our continued thirst for oil will keep on advancing the ability of these countries to be able to buy the technology that we invent, some of which may well be a threat to us or those we attempt to protect, e.g. the current worries over Iran's nuclear development and the concomitant threat to Israel.

If we truly wish the peoples of the Middle East to be free, then we must divorce ourselves from our oil needs. Simple military intervention, as has been clearly demonstrated in Iraq, will not work. No, we must totally eliminate, or at least severely reduce, our oil consumption and, painful as it must be to stand by, watch those regimes collapse into economic ruin and then encourage the foundations of a new and more progressive power structure.

It means a more subtle intervention, with the West playing the Culture, rather than Star Wars' Empire. Let us simply hope that we have learned enough not to end up having to Look To Windward...


Robert said...

Nice. A couple of quick comments:

First, countries and cultures cannot really be said to be independent from one another in the same way that sci-fictional planetry societies are. We're one human race, and different tribes have been learning from one another since pre-history. Sure, the innovators may always flourish in the free societies, but their investors will always sell to everyone, everywhere. That's probably why the Fluffy Economist is annoyed that they make so much money.

encourage foundations of a new and more progressive power structure

To what extent do we do this in countries where we do not depend on them for oil?

Martin said...


Very interesting and thoughtful essay.

I'm not familiar with Banks' work - however, the likelihood of catastrophe arising from intervention in Middle Eastern affairs was recognised as early as 1954, when, as Chalmers Johnson has noted, the CIA produced a memo noting the possibility of 'blowback' from its role in toppling the Iranian premier Mossadegh the prevous year. 25 years later the Revolutionary Guards were throwing vitriol in wee lassies' faces.

Many of your points on innovation are well taken. I would merely add that Christian societies have always been more likely to produce innovation because the types of societies it moulds are profoundly different to those shaped by Islam. The Christian ethic is towards the creation of nuclear families and away from tribal loyalty and clannishness, which is perhaps one reason why some Muslims are still gung-ho for cousin marriage regardless of the physical consequences.

Also vital to innovation are sanctity of contract, secure banking and the presence of a manufacturing sector. As an historical rule of thumb, innovation always, always, always physically follows manufacturing. It always makes me wonder whether Blair and Brown are making a viciously ironic joke when they talk about the need to maintain R & D in this country, given that the globalisation policy has moved manufacturing, innovation's engine, to other locations for no reason other than cost. The most important forms of innovation being done here now seem to be in the ghoulish twilight of the biosciences. Having lost the ability to manufacture stuff, we can now only manufacture ourselves.

Alternative energy is a must, if only because the groups being most enriched, the Saudis, are those which must change in order for the rest of us to be able to sleep a little more easily in our beds. Again, it always causes me a ripple of amusement when I read an Austrian school dittohead say that 'Alternative energy will become economic to develop when the oil price reaches a certain level'. They never think of what we will do before then, because, with a government intent on suppressing wage inflation through mass immigration, we'll have burnt Grandmother's dining room table long before before you can buy a house sized solar cell for a quid.

Anonymous said...

That piece well deserves some feedback. Although I have not been much impressed by DC's 'turquoise' campaign, I do think that our energy sources hamper our freedom of choice, both internationally buying oil as you describe, and domestically - Gordon has you by the goolies every time you fill up. It is ironic how a government keen on green initiatives makes life so hard for the chip-fat-biofuel brigade, whose practice makes sense economically and environmentally, for fear of exposing the lucrative fuel-tax as being perhaps not one of life's inevitables after all.
Personally I think there is a strong tie-up between small-scale/domestic energy supply (which could transform farming in this country) and low taxes and small government and, well, conservatism. We should be looking into alternatives not for (dubious) environmental reasons, but for strong economic - and as you point out - strategic reasons, especially as the North Sea reserves dwindle. If it means picking up a few green votes along the way that would have otherwise gone to the social-control enviroundheads then so much the better. The blue-is-green argument has come in for much ridicule in the last few weeks, but people have been happily swallowing the green-is-red bluff for far too long.
Clarke is a porcine cunt by the way. (just to get the response tally up a little ;)

The W11 resident.

Tim Newman said...

As somebody who knows a bit about the Middle East and its oil industry, there is much to be applauded in this post. You have it almost bang on. However:

In conclusion, the failure of the Middle East to develop the "freedoms" that we, generally, take for granted in the West, is entirely down to the fact that we need the oil that comes out of their ground.

Almost, but not quite. If the Middle East did not have oil, it would be an irrelevancy along with much of Africa, and largely ignored and/or contained. What you mean to say, I think, is that the failure of the Middle East to develop the freedoms whilst being engaged with the rest of the world is entirely down to the fact that we need the oil that comes out of their ground. Without the oil, there would be no freedoms and next to no engagement.

Personally, I don't the Middle East will rebuild once the oil runs out and it has descended into econpomic collapse. Look at Syria for an example of what an Arabic country without oil ends up like.

Mr Eugenides said...

I would leave an awfully clever comment about Iain Banks, but I've been glanding some "Hewitt" and now feel the need to send my drone to go and spend someone's money and then patronise them...

Robert said...

Almost, but not quite. If the Middle East did not have oil, it would be an irrelevancy along with much of Africa, and largely ignored and/or contained.

Surely the Middle-East would still be strategically important due to its location. Primarily Suez, but more generally as a gateway to the rest of the Orient.

Also, wars have been fought in the area for centuries, due to the presence of Jerusalem - Nothing to do with oil. The region is the centre of the world for billions of people.

Devil's Kitchen said...

I disagree with you, Robert. Suez was only important because:

1) the Iron Curtain ensured that it was about the only way of getting through to the Middle East (and the Orient), and

2) the only reason that people wanted to get through to the Middle East was because it had oil.

Now, imagine a Middle East without oil (or a West with no demand for it). Why the hell would anyone want to go there?

As for the route to the Orient, ever since the fall of the USSR, it has been much easier to travel overland (apart from anything else, the Russians built a lovely, long railway). It's far swifter than going by sea, and less trouble than having to go via land, then onto a ship through the canal and then back onto land. Without oil (and an economy) the Middle East would be utterly irrelevent.

As for the religious aspect, well, yeah, so what. Jerusalem is mainly in Israeliu hands, and they are a democracy whose economy is not dependent on oil. So, even were millions of Westerners going on a pilgrimmage to Jerusalem every year (which they don't: religion, at least in the form that would encourage pilgrimmages) is dying in the West.

So, yes, the Middle East would be utterly irrelevent.


Umbongo said...

Tim Newman's point "Personally, I don't the Middle East will rebuild once the oil runs out and it has descended into econpomic collapse. Look at Syria for an example of what an Arabic country without oil ends up like" is well made. The same can be said of Venezuela and, now, Bolivia. If you win the pools it helps to have some kind of previous education in how to deal with money. We won the pools (a small win but very useful) in the North Sea. Thank God the Tories came to power before Viscount Stansgate and BNOC were able to waste these riches. Iran, Iraq, Saudi etc had no idea what to do and the revenues went to bolstering dictatorial regimes. I agree with Tim. When the oil runs out in the Middle East the area will return to sand.

My fist of flounce said...

Firstly, Suez is important regardless of oil in the ME as, obviously, it hugely reduces the cost of transport to Asia. Also, North Africa would not have been such a issue in WWII if it wasn't for the Suez canal, before the iron curtain came down. It is however a diversion from the main discussion.

Secondly, Personally, I don't the Middle East will rebuild once the oil runs out and it has descended into econpomic collapse. Go to the UAE. Oil money has been invested to make Dubai the trading hub of the Middle East - containg the world's largest container port, as well as, bizarrely as there's really nothing there, an important tourist destination. Qatar is also trying to follow this trend, with Doha mimicking Dubai as a tax haven.

Thirdly, as DK points out like a good Schumperterian, finance is essential to innovation. One thing holding back the ME is Sharia law which prevents the charging of interest on loans. This was originally to protect the people against the sin of making money from money. However it does make it harder for resources to realign around new projects whose prospects are uncertain. This point is perhaps consistent with Martin's if we accept that Sharia law has continued due to tribal due to a greater recognition of societal rules over the needs of the family.

Dubai has got round this by some complex scheme which I don't fully understand so shall not attempt to explain. Suffice to say, it's compliant with Sharia law, at least according to the well accomodated imam they got to rubber stamp it.

Fourthly, Umbongo, the jury's still out on Venezuela and Bolivia, which is doing precisely the opposite of the Saudi model and distributing its wealth to the people. I support this strategy as long as it goes hand in hand with giving the people opportunities to better themselves, which most fear will not be the case.

Fifthly, you leave mention of China until later. Might I suggest at thius point that 74,000 incidents of mass protest in China in 2003 suggests that the Chinese are straining for a bit of capitalist democracy themselves.

All in all, a thought provoking post. Sorry I went on a bit but there's my tupp'orth.