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An Ideology of Self-Righteousness


Rolf Petri begins his introduction to his new book A Short History of Western Ideology by quoting Samuel Huntington from his too-often-quoted essay titled “The Clash of Civilizations.” The essence of that essay was simple: the future of history will be the struggle between different earthly civilizations. More to the point, the likely conflict would be between Islamic civilizations and western ones informed by Christianity and Judaism. Instead of coexistence, it was to be the role of the west to enforce their doctrine of “human rights,” even if that meant violating human rights in the process. This coming (current?) struggle between civilizations nee cultures would replace the struggle that had defined history to this point. In other words, the struggle between nation states and ideologies was done. Capitalist liberalism had won, defeating collectivist notions of governance resoundingly. Some theorists, like Huntington’s onetime student Francis Fukuyama had even stated that history as struggle between ideologies was over.

After this introduction, Petri spends the rest of his text refuting Huntington’s speculative declaration. He does so by dissecting western ideology, in the process making it clear that not only is ideology not dead, it is alive and well. Indeed, a western ideology whose fundament is in the idea that the individual is its center is more pervasive than ever. In large part this is due to the supremacy of capitalist economics in the modern world; a supremacy that has essentially put the profits of a few ahead of the rights of the many. In what seems to be a contradiction, this latter reality is not only supported and encouraged by those reaping the profits, but apparently by a majority of those whose growing debt is expanding those profits. In other words, the masses popularly labeled the 99% during the Occupy movement of 2011.

Petri’s discussion of the nature and history of western ideology discusses the writings of philosophers and historians from Locke to Hobbes, and from Adam Smith to Marx and Engels. In the process, the reader is exposed to a critical and often innovative interpretation of these writers’ works; their commonalities and their differences. As Petri implies, his use of this spectrum of texts illustrates the basis all of them have in the ideology he considers in the text. In addition to this discourse on the essential nature of the ideas expounded by the philosophers and historians Petri examines, the writing here considers the differences found in their approaches. Those differences continue to this day, but it seems clear that the Lockean principle that conditions all rights on the rights of property has won the battle.

On the afternoon of September 11, 2001 I found myself in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. A smoky haze from the morning’s destruction a few blocks south hung in the air. The smell reminded me of a restaurant fire. My friend and I were two of maybe a thousand people in the park. Some were singing and playing musical instruments. Others were trying to contact family or friends. Some were smoking weed and drinking beer. The air was abuzz with hundreds of conversations. The one nearest me was between three men. After a few minutes, one offered me a hit from the joint they were smoking. I accepted his offer and listened while they discussed the burning towers and what to do with terrorists. Their consensus was simple: the US and other western nations should colonize the places terrorists came from and teach them how to be “civilized.” To say the least, this consensus startled me, especially given that the men were all African-American and their ancestors had been the subject of one of western civilization’s worst attempts to civilize a people.

I mention this conversation to illustrate Petri’s contention that the wars launched by western powers are not led by elites whose consciousness is different from the majority of the populations in those western nations. For the most part, the elites are not just manipulating a humanitarian impulse to profit from killing for resources and markets. No, like the men in that conversation in the park, the populations in western nations believe it is their duty to civilize the world. This duty is not taken lightly and explains why liberals and conservatives alike support wars for empire. This is not a cynical misuse of humanitarian impulses but a genuine belief their wars are humanitarian. It stems from the Christian impulse to save heathen souls; an impulse that continues to exist in even the most secular societies. Indeed, this is one of Petri’s fundamental arguments in this text. In other words, the merciless slaughter of indigenous peoples in the colonies, Muslims in the Holy Lands, and dark-skinned peoples in Africa and Asia is rationalized, even championed, in the name of the progress of the human race—its body and its soul.

According to Petri’s work, there is no western population in history that is immune from this missionary zeal. Religious or secular, the armies of western ideology together with their soft weaponry of capital and propaganda are convinced their way of life is better than any other. Given this, too many of its champions have taken it on themselves to spread that way of life on populations willing and unwilling around the globe. Behind it all stands the economics of capitalism—a ravenous beast that devours human souls and redefines the world according to its appetites. A Short History of Western Ideology ends with a warning. “But I dare to make one prediction,” writes Petri. “If we persevere in our self-righteousness over history, and in the presumption that we know better and ‘line up’ against evil better than others do, we will make everything worse.”

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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