“The period of history which is commonly called ‘modern,’” wrote Bertrand Russell in 1945, “has a mental outlook which differs from that of the medieval period in many ways. Of these, two are most important: the diminishing authority of the Church, and the increasing authority of science.” “The culture of modern times,” Russell added, “is more lay than clerical,” so that “states increasingly replace[d] the Church as the …authority that controls culture.” These “modern” states, partly under the influence of science, tended, Russell felt, democracy, which first became “an important force” in “the modern sense” with the American and French Revolutions (1).
Last Monday, nearly 230 years after the modern democratic American Revolution challenged the Divine Right of Kings and “made the rights of man known to all of Europe” (Condorcet), a curious meeting took place in the vacation home of the President of the United States. News of this summit in Crawford, Texas sent Kant, Voltaire, Condorcet, Thomas Jefferson and other leading thinkers of the Ages of Reason and (bourgeois) Revolution spinning in their coffins a little faster than usual.
In one chair sat George W. Bush, the “messianic militarist” (Ralph Nader’s description) United States (U.S.) president who once invoked “Christ” as his favorite political philosopher (“because he changed my heart”) and who announced his imperialist war(s) on terror and the Arab world as “a crusade” (2). A friend of school prayer and the death penalty and a religiously based opponent of abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, evolutionary science, and stem-cell research, Bush is probably the nation’s most theocratic president to date. He finds critical electoral support among the highly mobilized group of Americans – equaling perhaps a third of the first “modern” nation’s citizenry – who call themselves Fundamentalist Christians and who therefore tend to believe literally in such biblical prophecies as Armageddon, and the Second Coming. These beliefs, taken from the book of Revelation, “imply acceptance,” as David Harvey notes, “of the horrors of war (particularly in the Middle East) as a prelude to the achievement of God’s will on earth”(3).
Bush is probably the most authoritarian U.S. president since at least the turn of the 20th century. He has exhibited extreme disdain for democratic institutions and values in numerous ways, including his chronic deception of the American public (most dramatically in regard to the reasons for, and achievements of, his Iraq occupation and nature of his “middle-class” tax cuts), his denial of citizen access to public White House records, and his determination to enact regressive, corporate plutocratic domestic policies opposed by most Americans.
Sitting in the other chair at Crawford was Crown Prince Abdullah, neo-medieval monarch of the most reactionary and doctrinaire nation on earth. According to Gilbert Achcar in 1997, “democratic” America’s longstanding client state Saudi Arabia “is the antithesis of democracy. It is a country where the Koran and Sharia are the only basic law and which is run by ultra-puritan Wahhabi [fanatically extremist and arch-authoritarian] Wahabbi [Muslims]. It is incontestably the most fundamentalist state in the world, the most totalitarian in political and cultural terms, and the most oppressive of the female half of the population” (4).
Things have not improved much in Saudi Arabia (from an Enlightenment perspective, at least) over the last eight years. The kingdom still enjoys a continuing “positive relationship” with the United States despite, or because, of its continuing terrible record of antidemocratic actions. It still practices the wholesale denial of civil, political, and human rights. Despite the Bush administration’s pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric about bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to the Arab world, the “totalitarian” Saudi state remains a close US ally, receiving ample support from the Pentagon.
The secret to this “positive relationship,” of course, is oil. Saudi Arabia has the largest petroleum reserves on the planet, a factor of great significance to the architects and maintainers of American empire. “In 1945,” Noam Chomsky notes, U.S. State Department officials “described Saudi-Arabian energy resources as ‘a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in history.’” Thanks mainly to its vast oil endowments, President Dwight Eisenhower considered the oil-laden Persian Gulf (where Saudi Arabia was the petroleum-soaked crown jewel) to be “the most strategically important area of the world.” By controlling Saudi and other Arab oil resources and production, U.S. policymakers have long hoped to attain significant “veto power” over the economic, military, and diplomatic conduct of rival states and regions, who depend significantly on external (and especially Middle Eastern) energy supplies(5).
The relevance of that “strategic” and “veto” power is accelerated for those policymakers by America’s own growing dependence upon foreign oil imports and the emergence of more functional state-capitalist systems in Western Europe and East Asia as superior economic competitors. Increasingly unable to keep (up on purely economic terms) with their world capitalist rivals, the deeply indebted and highly “defense” (military)-addicted U.S. empire relies like never before on its vast military might (a source of power and weakness at one and the same time) to shore up its challenged economic strength by keeping an armed boot on the global oil spigot (6).
At the same time, American imperialists rightly consider control of that spigot as vital to their declared project of preventing the emergence of any conceivable challenge to U.S. global military hegemony. As Harvey notes, “the military runs on oil. North Korea may have a sophisticated air-force, but it cannot use it much for lack of fuel. Not only does the U.S. need to ensure its own military supplies. But any future military conflict with, say, China [which U.S. planners consider to their greatest strategic military rival in coming decades, P.S.], will be lopsided if the U.S. has the power to cut off oil supplies to its opponent.” (7)
Thanks to the State Department’s early understanding of oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s “stupendous” strategic relevance, U.S. imperial architects made a critical deal with the kingdom after WWII. The U.S. was granted decisive control over the Saudis’ economic and external affairs (including oil production and pricing), along with military basing rights. In return, the U.S. guaranteed the security of the regime from internal (democratic and otherwise) and external threats.
Buttressed by its initially small share of the wealth that American corporations extracted from its soil, the Saudi state managed to keep the Ages of Reason and Revolution at bay into the 21st Century. As Achcar notes, “the perpetuation and installation” by the US of “a premodern tribal dynasty in Saudi Arabia” – a process replicated by the US and other western nations (principally England) in other Arab oil states – has “contrasted strongly with colonialism’s project of overturning traditional structures in other parts of the world and setting up models emulating political modernity. The ‘civilizing mission’ of the West in the establishment of state institutions did not extend to [Saudi Arabia and other oil monarchies]. On the contrary, here the project was to consolidate backwardness in order to guarantee unfettered exploitation of hydrocarbon resources by the imperial power” (8).
And exploit Saudi oil the US did. American corporate petroleum authorities pumped out and processed enormous amounts of the kingdom’s “black gold” and sold it at remarkably low prices – down to $1.29 per barrel by 1969 – to fuel the dazzling expansion of the leading core states (Western and Japanese) economies during the 1950s and 1960s.
It is true that Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other Arab oil states including Iran Iraq, and Kuwait dramatically increased oil prices and Arab wealth by forming a producers’ cartel (OPEC) that brandished the boycott to great effect in the 1970s. By the end of that decade, Middle Eastern oil had risen to $25 per barrel, with Arab elites now receiving most of the revenue. Nonetheless, as Middle Easter historian Rashid Kahlidi points out, “the American companies continued to enjoy a privileged position in their relations with the Saudi oil industry” and “the United States continued to enjoy its strategic privileges in the country, such as rights to military bases. American industry and services also had great advantages in access to the lucrative Saudi market, which in light of the new oil wealth was insatiable in its demand for construction, consumer goods and most profitably of all expensive weapons systems far too complex to be used without the very expensive training and maintenance provided by American companies.” The fantastic new oil revenues made the Saudi regime more powerful than ever in its ability to repress dissent, including that of those who wish to deny the US special privileges in and around the kingdom (9).
Which brings us to the reason for the Crown Prince’s presence in Crawford. He came to discuss the expansion of Saudi oil output, required by the American overlords to reduce what Bush and his advisors consider the “unreasonably” high ($55 a barrel) price of oil. The corporate-petrocratic White House does not mind high oil prices; no true oiligarchy would. But the administration is worried that current prices at the American pump are so elevated that they threaten US economic growth and endanger the Republican Party’s ability to effectively push its expensive, regressive, and reactionary policy agenda. It was, by all appearances, a successful meeting for Bush: Prince Abdullah committed his kingdom to investing $50 billion to increase Saudi oil production over the next decade.
To show concern for the embattled American consumer, the White House had the monarch sit down briefly with some ordinary folk in a dingy Crawford diner. “Heck,” Bush wanted the American citizen[consume]ry to know, “ole Abdullah” (we do not know if Dubya has given him a personal nickname yet) “is a regular fellow…wants to sit down and order a burger” – just like our blue-blood/blood-soaked (Andover-, Yale -, and Harvard-”edge-ooh-cated”) president. Gas prices and not human rights were the discussion topic during this little appearance, we can be sure.
Responsible journalists might find the administration’s push for increased Saudi oil production (and lower oil prices) highly interesting in light of Bush’s disastrous, illegal, and immoral occupation of Iraq. Among other things, this brazen imperial action was supposed to bring Iraq’s vast petro-productive capacities into play, helping keep oil prices within America’s definition of “reasonable.” But two years after Bush’s proto-fascistic “Mission Accomplished” PR stunt (featuring the “top-gun” president loanding in a flight suit on a U.S. aircraft carrier off the California coast), this and other declared “Operation Iraqi Freedom” objectives remain woefully unfulfilled. The war on Iraq has “succeeded” in killing perhaps 100,000 Iraqi civilians, sacrificing more than 1,500 (predominantly working-class) US service persons (and maiming many more), and tearing down standard civilized norms and institutions of international law and decency. It has deeply alienated Arab (including Iraqi) and world public opinion, fanned the flames of Islamic fundamentalism, and sparked an impressive Iraqi resistance movement that has naturally targeted oil pipelines in its effort to force the invader’s departure.
For a significant number of Americans of Fundamentalist sentiment (maybe even the president himself), however, this may all be largely for the good. After all, the bible calls for a final war beginning in the Middle East as prelude to the return of Jesus Christ Our Savior and the ascendancy of the saved non-sinners to Heaven.
Also meriting critical journalistic attention is the meaning of Bush’s call increased Saudi (and global) oil production in relation to the broad scientific consensus which concludes that planetary temperatures are dramatically elevating thanks primarily to human society’s massive discharge of petroleum-based emissions. This “global warming” problem carries numerous disastrous consequences – many already well underway – for human beings and other living things. As John Bellamy Foster has recently noted, “not only has global warming emerged since the 1980s as the greatest threat yet to the biosphere as we know it, but the problem has gotten rapidly worse. The prospect of only a very limited rise in average world temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels – an amount of increase thought to separate non-catastrophic from catastrophic levels of global warming – will soon become unstoppable.”
There is “rowing fear among scientists,” Foster adds, “of runaway global warming due to cumulative effects associated with a lessening of the carbon-absorbing capacities of the oceans and forests – a probable consequence of global warming itself. In Antarctica glaciers are melting and ice shelves thinning, pointing to a rise in sea levels. All ecosystems on earth are now in decline. Species are facing extinction at levels not seen for 65 million years. Global shortages of fresh water are looming. The toxicity of the earth is increasing.”
“All this and more is to be expected,” Foster adds, ” now that the rational regulation of the environment under capitalism has been shown to be a dangerous fantasy” in “the age of neoliberal globalization,” when the world’s unchallenged military superpower refuses to sign even the mild anti-warming Kyoto Protocol (10).
The last thing this emergence eco-catastrophe calls for, of course, is increased production and consumption of petroleum.
Bush’s brazen indifference to the looming problem of anthropogenic global warming (seen in his suppression of government reports documenting climate change as well his rejection of the Kyoto accord) is certainly related to his corporate-petrocratic background and connections. Real (or onetime wannabe) Texan oil men don’t lose sleep about the externalized costs of their poisonous industry. But another part of the administration’s disregard for growing concerns about planetary warming is more cosmological in nature. The nation’s Fundamentalist Christian have little reason to care about the excessive heating (human-generated or not) of the climate. When it’s all about the end of the world and getting to be one of The Chosen People who doesn’t get “Left Behind” (the name of a best-selling series of apocalyptic fundamentalist novels in the US) on the fleeting and sinful earth, after all, global warming is no problem. From a literalist biblical perspective, he ongoing climate change might actually be welcome: it will help the world burn faster when Judgment Day comes.
I have no idea what Saudi religious doctrine tells Prince Abdullah to think about the melting of the planet. It seems safe to assume, however, that his government’s efforts to maintain high oil prices have had less to do with protecting a livable climate than with maintaining the wealth and power of his tribal, arch-reactionary state.
The leading minds of the Age of Reason would be horrified by the spectacle of boy-king George and his good friend Prince Abdullah meeting to accelerate the disastrous overheating of humanity’s only available climate. More than two centuries after the American Revolution heralded the arrival of “modern” (at once rational and democratic) statesmanship, these dynastic and fundamentalist oiligarchs’ selfish contempt for democracy, science, and the greater common good should disqualify them from serving as toxic arbiters of our environmental fate. Should, that is…in an even moderately rational and democratic world.
Would Enlightenment leaders be surprised? At least one, perhaps, would not. As Chomsky has reminded us on repeated occasions, Thomas Jefferson in his later years warned that the early US Republic’s “banking institutions and moneyed corporations” (Jefferson) would, “if not curbed, become a form of absolutism that would destroy the promise of the democratic revolution.” Subsequent developments, Chomsky notes, “have more than fulfilled” Jefferson’s “most dire expectations.” The nation’s great and inherently (and legally, in fact) pathological corporations and the concentrated structures of political power they tend to control “have become largely unaccountable and increasingly immune from popular interference and public inspection while gaining great and expanding control over the global order.” Ruled by massive, profit-addicted, and militantly hierarchical institutions that were given “the rights of immortal persons” under early 20th century US law – modern “managerial” corporations – American global state capitalism has occasionally been compelled to temper its underlying tendencies towards savage inequality, tyranny, oppression, empire, militarism, and ecological as well socioeconomic imbalance. Beyond occasional moments of rational, socially responsible, and democratic reform and regulation, however, the system’s deeper and irresistible drift is always towards the destructive and chaotic concentration of unaccountable power and the ceaseless pursuit of wealth and control for the most privileged members of the owning, investing, and exploiting (business) class (11). The advance of “whatever works” to serve those basic dark imperatives is the basic rule of life and policy under the soulless regime of the “moneyed corporations”
Thanks to this harsh reality, there’s no particular commitment on the part of those in power to scientific rationalism and/or democratic modernism per se. The dominant values are profit, power, empire, and the never-ending quest for capital accumulation – guiding principles that lead often enough to the embrace of atavistic, “pre-modern” barbarism and blatant disregard for humanity and its environmental and other needs. Embodied by such science-friendly national founding heroes as Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, the legacy of the Age of Reason becomes little more than a means to reactionary, selfish, and unreasonable ends.
Rational, scientifically informed thinking is embraced and empowered only insofar as it serves the deeper autocratic imperatives of empire, profit, and inequality. It is employed in the rapacious capitalist extraction of the planet’s fossil fuels. It is disregarded, however, when it comes to understanding and confronting the grave ecological price that is paid for excessive, unregulated carbon emissions. It is put to profitable and strategic imperial use in the sophisticated arming of a vicious, medieval monarchy that happens to support the United States’ rather neo-medieval determination effort to rule the world on the basis of a sheer preponderance of force.
But then, this is what happens when the democratic revolution gives way to the absolutism of state capitalist autocracy. Only those who do not understand the inherently antisocial irrationality of American imperial capitalism – living embodiment of the Thermidorian nightmare that Jefferson glimpsed – should find it odd that two reactionary, aristocratic petro-Fundamentalists like King George and Prince Abdullah are empowered to push the overheated planet’s temperature higher even as preponderant majority of the world’s scientifically trained climate experts say “STOP.”
1. Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (NY: 1945), p.491.
2. David Corn, The Nation (January 19, 2000); James Carroll, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War (NY: 2004)
3. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (NY: 2003), pp.190-191. Many of Bush’s military “crusaders” are “recruited,” Harvey adds, “from the [US] South, where such views are prevalent.” Consistent with Harvey’s opinion that the influence of the religious right on US politics “should not be underestimated,” the Crawford meeting took place one day after Republican US Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist (who wishes to follow some of Bush’s evangelical footpaths to the White House in 2008) went on Christian fundamentalist television to support the elimination of the 200-year-old (thereby dating from the Age of Reason) Senate filibuster rule – the last remaining tool for the more “secular humanist” Democratic Party to block the appointment of fanatically rightist anti-abortion (and simultaneously hyper-neoliberal[economically deregulatory]) judges to the federal courts. See Paul Street, “The Nuclear Option and the One Party State,” ZNet Magazine (April 23, 2005), available online at http://www.zmag.org/ content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=90&ItemID=7710.
4. Gilbert Achcar, The Clash of Barbarisms (NY: 2002), p.46.
5. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (NY: 2003), p.150.
6. Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, pp. 145-152; Harvey, The New Imperialism, pp. 24-25, 84-85, 198-206.
7. Harvey, p.25; Chomsky, p.152.
8. Achcar, p.45
9. Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (Boston, MA: 2004), p.110.
10. John Bellamy Foster, “The End of Rational Capitalism,” Monthly Review (March 2005): 10-11.
11. Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order (bastion, 1996), p. 72; Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (NY, 2004); Foster, “The End of Rational Capitalism,” pp. 1-13.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9.11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) and Segregated Schools: Race, Class, and Educational Apartheid in the Posat-9/11 Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005)