After the ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, liberals have been quick to push what they consider the adult interpretation, empathizing with the culprits, protecting them from “Islamophobia” and laying much of the blame with the American government’s military involvement in the Middle East. So-called conservatives in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere instead demonize Muslims, turning the attacks into a very different kind of teachable moment. Liberals have feminism-fuelled empathy as well as technocratic interest in the facts, and so they call upon the United States and its allies to stop meddling in other countries, whereas right-wingers seized the opportunity to further dumb-down Westerners, reducing the conflict to a religious war between Good and Evil; Americans, for example, must be blameless, whereas all Muslims are in league with the savage terrorists who serve the devil even as they consider themselves martyrs for the true God Allah.
Lost in these exchanges is a logically prior question, which is whether civilians in a modern democracy could even potentially deserve blame or punishment for the deeds of their government and military. Putting aside the question of whether in the case of the 911 attack or the Paris one, ordinary Americans or Parisians deserve blowback, we should consider whether modern democratic citizens in general could ever, under any circumstance be responsible for their nation’s actions. Given the political and economic structure of such a society, are such citizens necessarily innocent of whatever might be done in their name? Indeed, we should reflect on what’s actually meant by calling victims such as those in the ISIL attack “innocent civilians,” as in “The bloodthirsty barbarians targeted innocent civilians in their cowardly terrorist attack.”
The Corruption of Modern Democracies
Before we begin, note the difference between direct and indirect democracies. Modern democracies are almost all indirect, meaning that the citizens don’t directly select their nation’s policies. Instead, they elect representatives who then decide how their country should be governed and how their military should be used abroad. This means that the citizens in question are at least somewhat removed from the high-level decisions that could invite international praise or condemnation. Also, because the terrorist attacks are supposed to be about punishing Westerners, I’ll focus on this negative side of the issue, although the analysis will also apply to the positive side, to whether the citizens might ever deserve praise for decisions made at their governmental level.
It might still look as though the answer were obvious, especially when there’s a stark choice between candidates in an election. To the extent that voters marginalize extreme candidates, such as bigoted xenophobes or radical environmentalists, the voters could logically be held accountable for steering their country in a more moderate direction, if not for any specific policy fulfilled by the elected representative. But because public relations has become something of a science, this account of democracy which likely informs the terrorist’s rationalizations is woefully naïve. What we discover in elections in so-called advanced democracies like the U.S. is that the nominees for high office learn to hide their actual opinions, to campaign from the so-called center so that they all appear moderate. The result is that it’s hard to tell the candidates apart. Their political debates, for example, revolve around micro-issues because the candidates are smart enough not to inflame the electorate with divisive rhetoric on the big, controversial issues. Indeed, those candidates who differ from the mainstream consensus are precisely the ones who are marginalized by the mass media and by public prejudice. The candidates who attain their party’s nomination and are poised to run a powerful democratic nation are always groomed by political consultants, their appearances stage-managed, their speeches and talking points market-tested, and their policies themselves more and more dictated by large campaign contributors who typically dominate mainstream thinking so that both the liberal and the conservative politicians end up governing as neoliberals.
In the United States, the process of marginalizing radicals, meaning those who reject mainstream assumptions, is streamlined, because the country has a two-party system. The voters are offered a choice between two candidates from the established parties, any independent candidate thus being implicitly conceived of from the start as radical, that is, as not part of the establishment. As I said, voters then have to read the tea leaves to discern what the candidates would actually do in office, because the candidates are trained to sound like winsome centrists so as not to offend potential voters with the reality of what their country faces or with who is actually running for office. For example, George W. Bush campaigned as a compassionate conservative, but after 911 revealed that he was a neoconservative. Barak Obama campaigned as a radical liberal who would change the system, but governed as a neoliberal centrist, especially in his handling of 2008’s Wall Street meltdown.
The current Republican Party looks like an exception to the rule, since it seems ready to nominate true radicals which would offer voters a genuine choice between mainstream neoliberal Hillary Clinton and a quasi-fascist right-winger. But the smart money is on one of two scenarios unfolding: radicals like Trump, Carson, and Cruz are early favourites only because the shrinking Republican base, which alone is politically engaged this early in the electoral process, is venting its frustrations by shoving such offensive characters onto the national stage, forcing the country to stomach the inanities spouted by the bogus candidates. It’s the equivalent of farting in a crowded elevator. The candidate who will actually be nominated will be an established, mainstream one like Rubio or even Jeb Bush. Alternatively, if a real or apparent radical is nominated, the handlers who run the Party will swing into action, conducting a makeover of the candidate, walking back his or her earlier, insane remarks. The latter happened when Romney and McCain ran for office: to win the support of their Party’s troglodytic base, they had to sound radical, but to win in the general election they had to sound moderate. Voters had to decide which was the real candidate, the troglodyte or the puppet of powerful special interests. To be sure, some Tea Party radicals have since been elected to U.S. Congress, but they represent a protest vote since their power is limited to creating gridlock and to coarsening the public discourse. No, it’s safe to trust in the following principle, which is just a corollary of the axiom that power corrupts: the closer a politician is to a real seat of power in a hypermodern democracy, the more her actions will appease the unelected centers of power that offer her or that sustain the seat in the first place, and this is so regardless of the politician’s rhetoric.
The point is that in a hypermodern (postindustrial, “postmodern”) democracy, the voter’s responsibility even for the abstract choice of her nation’s general course is complicated by the above factors. In essence, this sort of political system is fraudulent, having been hijacked by oligarchs who ensure that the status quo is maintained regardless of superficial differences between the relevant candidates. In particular, the candidates habitually lie by omission, concealing their true preferences or hyping phony ones, offering the voters a false choice, that is, a non-choice of national direction. The corporate media cooperate by marginalizing critics of the status quo, reducing the acceptable political discourse to one within the narrow limits that suit the few energized political supporters who bother to participate in the long run. The non-voter might conceivably be held accountable for acquiescing to the status quo, but this too would be complicated by the fact that whatever the effect of their decision not to vote, most non-voters—indeed, almost half of eligible voters in the U.S.—intend to boycott what they consider to be a sinister or inept institution, in which case much of the population would agree with many of the findings of radical critics of the West such as the ISIL terrorists.
Democracy and Limited Liability
We can begin to understand the complexities by comparing the modern democracy to a limited liability corporation. In both cases, there’s a crucial difference between individual and collective functions. In an indirect democracy, the citizens are distinguished from their political representatives who are directly responsible for their country’s policies, while the citizens are at best only indirectly so. In a limited corporation or partnership, the role of the shareholders or partners as such is separate from their role as persons, so that they’re liable only for their investments in the company. If the company goes into debt, they can’t personally be sued even though their actions as officers of the company may have created the debt. (A sole proprietorship is more like a direct democracy, since the partner has unlimited liability, meaning there’s no legal distinction between her public and private roles; that is, her business isn’t regarded as a collective person with emergent rights.) One difference is that in a democracy, the distinction mostly corresponds to a division between persons, since the voters don’t tend to have much power in the government. The politicians are also citizens and so they can vote, but they’re exceptions in that respect. Most voters invest in their government, as it were, just by voting, but their public role isn’t otherwise politically relevant, since they don’t work in the government or aren’t plutocrats with outsized influence on the politicians. Most shareholders in a limited corporation are likewise investors rather than managers, but the investors can have much more power in the company than voters have in their government, because their investments are monetary. If a shareholder owns 51% of the stock, she has control over the company even if the day-to-day management is handled by others. As for the managers, they may bring the company to ruin with their public actions as officers of the company, but they can’t be sued as private citizens; their personal wealth is protected if they have limited liability.
The economic purpose of limited liability is, of course, to encourage entrepreneurship. The idea is that when doing business in a corporation, you’re part of a collective agent. If only human individuals were involved, with no collective agency, your personal wealth would be at stake in your business decisions and so you’d hesitate to invest in or to manage a large company, in which corporate control is diffuse, unless you were wealthy and could afford to lose large investments. In practice, this prescription of entrepreneurship becomes euphemistic. The spirit of the law of limited corporate liability is captured by Adam Smith’s faith in the invisible hand of the marketplace. Capitalism encourages not just adventurousness but the sin of selfishness. The aim is to give human individuals the license to act in an inhuman fashion in their business dealings, at the corporate level, by severing their private holdings from their corporate role.
It’s rather like a hedonistic cult such as the one portrayed in the movie Eyes Wide Shut, in which individuals don disguises which allow them to pursue their sexual perversions in secret, maintaining the public illusion of their innocence as citizens. Likewise, despite whatever private morality an individual might profess, capitalism directs her to engage in unscrupulous business practices, since she’s legally protected from the fallout of whatever shortsighted, self-destructive decisions she might make as a manager or powerful investor. Only her holdings in the company will be at stake if her capitalistic vices contribute to the company’s downfall. She has no legal responsibility to help repair society, for example, if her products are shown to be catastrophic as in the case of cigarettes or fast food. (The companies can be sued, but not the immoral human individuals involved in the corporate practices.) In effect, corporate work may indeed be akin to an actor’s playing a make-believe role: she’s given a legal license to ignore her private convictions, to gamble with other people’s lives, to backstab her way to the top, and to ignore the social good, but that’s just an excuse to pretend to be a degenerate so that the invisible hand—which is that of the collective and of no individual human—might miraculously correct the economy’s course so that it self-regulates. The point is that the more selfish we are in business, the better off we’ll all be as a whole because fierce competition, approximating the unregulated kind you find in the jungle, weeds out inefficiencies. If the businessperson happens to be personally sociopathic, so that she’s not just playing a role in public, so much the better for society; she’ll be afforded the same legal protections from the disasters that predictably follow from the uninhibited expression of her vices.
The main reason for this comparison between these political and economic ways of handling collectives is that they both involve one order of being emerging from another. Whereas individuals may be responsible for their personal actions, when they work together in large groups they have less control because their roles belong to the collective, emergent entity, to the democracy or the corporation. Control at the collective level is diffuse and so the individuals involved shouldn’t be held fully accountable for the collective actions. (You might compare this also to how major studio films are made: what might begin as one writer’s vision of a story is passed along to thousands of other players in the industry—to the actors, producers, director, rewriters, studio executives, test audiences, and so on—so that the resulting movie may not reflect that initial vision and the writer may even want to be disassociated from the fruit of that collective.) In a democracy, this division of labour is codified by the split not just between roles but between the individuals themselves: most “investors” are just voters who have no say whatsoever in what their political leaders do. Their democratic control is indirect and nebulous, at best, because direct decision-making powers are granted to a special class of citizen, to the elected representative. And in a corporation, this same metaphysical consideration about the difference between the parts and the whole is recognized by the legal protection of personal wealth from the results of actions taken in a corporate role.
The upshot is that the outrage at the terrorist’s audacity in attacking civilians in a modern democracy might be traced to an implicit understanding of this comparison. Just as individuals aren’t personally responsible for damages done by their corporate activities, voters aren’t responsible for their collective, national actions that are taken directly only by their political representatives. The assumption would be that voters ought to have something like limited liability. But this analogy is itself limited, because of the difference I’ve already discussed. In the economic case, there’s no such division of labour because the purpose of limited liability in that context is, as I said, to encourage selfishness, that being the supposed engine of collective happiness. If you invest in a company and you’re driven selfishly to protect your investment, without moral regard for competitors, you protect the investment by getting involved—which you can do in business but not so effectively in politics. To be sure, there are powerless investors such as those who own minimal amounts of stock in this or that company. But unlike in a democracy in which the sanctioned kind of investment takes the form of voting, which divides democratic power to such an extent that each voter’s power becomes negligible in a large voting population, in business investment and power are more closely related. Managers, in particular, are paid largely in the form of stock options. Whereas a politician’s political investment in the country is limited to one vote, a manager can own millions of dollars in the company’s stocks. (She can even dump that stock to avoid not just personal culpability—as she thinks selfishly only of short-term gain and so plunders the company’s resources, increasing the stocks’ value before the inevitable collapse—but even the limited liability: her stocks would have fallen to zero value, but thanks to her inside knowledge of the damage she’s done to her company, she’s sold them in advance.)
The purpose of limited liability assumes, then, the businessperson’s ability to shape the outcome of her investment. Powerful investors are able not just to invest huge quantities, but to decide how to capitalize on those holdings, such as by hiring or influencing the managers. And unlike politicians, the managers likewise have dual control. In democratic politics, the split between voter and politician, and the egalitarian nature of the political investment mean that even if voters were directed by a comparable Darwinian logic to vote selfishly, they couldn’t effectively follow up on their narrow-mindedness (unless they were plutocrats who could act outside the political system, effectively turning the democracy into a mockery). They can write letters to their representatives, but because of the division of labour (not to mention the gerrymandering, the expert management of public opinion in campaigns, the timid, compliant corporate media, and so on), the politician needn’t take them into account in her policymaking. Some voters do vote selfishly, as in the case of so-called American values-voters who ignore the fact that their government is constitutionally obligated to be secular. They seek to overturn women’s abortion rights, to have creationism taught in science classrooms, and the like, but because of the division of labour, their “representatives” are free to renege on their values-based pledges once in office. As Thomas Frank shows in What's the Matter with Kansas?, such voters have thus been conned into systematically voting against their economic interest. But these radical, Tea Party voters are having the last laugh by purging the GOP of all moderates and electing genuine troglodytes who aren’t even interested in governing.
Innocence and Subhumanity: Consumers as Cattle
In any case, there’s a more fitting comparison to help understand the outrage at jihadist terrorism. Once again, posit the two orders of being and the division of labour. But put aside the emergence of collective agency from the sum of individual human contributors, and reverse the direction of investment. Instead of assuming that a multitude of people invests in a minority that represents the collective, that is, leaving aside the stock-holders and the consumers who all invest their money in a corporation run by a relatively small number of powerful investors and managers, suppose a minority invests in a multitude. Compare, that is, indirect democracy to the relation between farmers and their livestock. Once again, we have two orders of being: the livestock are domesticated animals owned and operated by the much better-informed farmers. The farmers invest in the livestock by feeding them and setting up the farm to shelter them; in return, the livestock supply the farmers with produce (eggs, milk, meat, wool, manual labour). The word “stock” in “livestock” refers to a quantity of something accumulated for future use. Here, then, the investment isn’t monetary, as in the case of a company’s stock; the real investment is in the centuries of training of these wild animals to domesticate them so that they become properties of some humans, numbers on a chart rather than untamed instruments of the wilderness that’s indifferent to our interests. Domesticated animals are servants of their human masters. They’re often mistreated, especially in the larger, corporate farms, but they needn’t be so. Livestock are to farmers, then, as are democratic citizens to their power elites.
Of course, theoretically, the power relations are supposed to be reversed. A democracy is supposed to be a society in which the majority rules. The majority holds the power to change its government not just by voting in a new one, but by revolting against one that fails to uphold the law. This expectation traces back to the Renaissance idolization of the individual. The Church proved to be corrupt and ignorant about nature, and the Scientific Revolution proved that lone Renaissance men, geniuses in various fields could almost singlehandedly usher in a new age of progress. The liberal myth was that everyone has the potential for such genius, for justifying the rights conferred on her in a free society, by producing great works of science and art. Modern democracies are individualistic in spirit. But as modernity has given way to hypermodernity, as we’ve lost faith in our founding secular myths, having seen how democracy and capitalism degenerate, we needn’t be so naïve as to believe that the Enlightenment ideals are other than propagandistic myths. For the reasons I’ve already gone over, the majority’s rule in a hypermodern democracy is superficial and illusory. There’s the deep state to contend with, that is, the long-term bureaucrats in government and the national security sector, as well as the chiefs of the big banks, major regulatory agencies, colleges, mass media outlets, and transnational corporations. As I said, this powerful minority of individuals establishes a national consensus that the status quo which serves that minority most of all should be upheld at all costs.
Moreover, just as the livestock depend on their masters, the majority depends on that top one percent. True, there’s some interdependence in both cases, since the farmers require the produce to survive, and the oligarchic deep state needs the money flowing from mass consumption. But in either case there’s a power asymmetry. The farmers control the livestock because of their vastly superior knowledge; they’re people and the livestock are animals, after all. Similarly, with their vastly greater wealth and much more influential social positions, the members of the oligarchic deep state control the multitudes of voters and consumers. For example, just as the livestock are literally fenced in, the voters’ freedom is circumvented by their false choice of candidates in a corrupt political system. In 2008, they intended to vote for a transformative, messianic figure so that the United States might rise like a phoenix from the ashes left by Bush II; instead, they got Obama’s continuity with Bush’s economic and foreign policies. Of course, Bush and Obama have very different backgrounds and characters, and their policies aren’t identical, but they’re united by the neoliberal consensus to serve the American establishment. A true radical in the highest political office is duly marginalized or assassinated. For instance, any compassionate side of Bush II’s conservatism, owing to his embarrassing born-again Christianity was bypassed by V.P. Dick Cheney, who infamously created a shadow national security apparatus to tilt the country towards endless war in the Middle East.
Suppose this unflattering comparison between democracy and the farm is plausible. How is it relevant to the question at issue? The thought is that when Western states are terrorized by bloodthirsty jihadists, the outrage isn’t accounted for just by the barbarity of the terrorists’ actions. Thanks to Hollywood and the computer game industry, we’ve long become desensitized to extreme violence. Of course, because we’re cattle-like, we’re protected from images of real death and violence as well as from death and violence themselves so that we may fulfill our function of consuming in the short-sighted, domesticated, infantilized fashion. We nevertheless each consume thousands upon thousands of simulations of extreme violence, so it’s not the terrorist’s barbarism that shocks us. When we stand outraged that the terrorists would intend to slaughter “innocent civilians,” we’re not reacting solely to the fact that those civilians are killed in a certain manner. It’s the desecration of the civilians’ innocence that so offends our sensibilities. But why? As complicated as is our influence over our democratic governments, we do exercise some control by voting in the centrist parties that bomb Muslim countries—even if we do so like cattle that habitually push a lever to be fed. The countries we bomb are impoverished, so their indignant young men lash out against soft targets if only to gain attention from the sensationalist mass media, to obtain recruits to their theocratic cause. These psychological, economic, and strategic reasons for jihadist terrorism are plain, so whence the mystery and the outrage in the West? Why do we presume that we’re so innocent that the terrorist attacks against us must be demonic emanations?
I submit that our presumed innocence is due to our relative subhumanity, compared to the godlike powers of the richest one percent of persons in Western civilization. We’re innocent in that, compared to the oligarchs’ palpable divinity—their wealth enables them to do practically whatever they want—we’re sheep that have wandered back into Eden, blissfully ignorant and helpless. We’re pets into which our power elites have invested fortunes to discover what we most want and how best to keep us safe, yielding the noosphere of associative advertisements and the ravenous national security industry. When we’re attacked by a terrorist, there’s a violation of the deep state denizens’ implicit property rights over us. The terrorist’s effrontery is that of the fox that squeezes through the farmer’s fence and carries off some chickens. In the hypermodern context, “innocent civilian” is a euphemism for “benighted pet.” Our primary role isn’t to fulfill the Enlightenment ideal of being a community of Renaissance geniuses. After WWII and the revolutions in public relations and market research, most of us are meant to consume—and that’s it. As Denzel Washington’s character explains in the movie Training Day, there are the sheep, the everyday citizens, and there are the wolves that protect them, the dirty cops who walk on Dick Cheney’s dark side, doing the ugly work that must be kept from the sheep to preserve their illusions.
Our “innocence” is metaphysical, not legal or moral: we occupy a lower link in the great chain of being. Consequently, the terrorist’s denial of that innocence is no mere political opinion, but an indirect blasphemous assault on the true gods, on our domesticators. Exoterically, the terrorist may mean to compel free citizens to alter their voting habits, by terrifying them into compliance. To the extent that the terrorist has that agenda, he labours under an obsolete conception of modernity, as I’ve explained. The great majority of Western citizens are powerless precisely because of their metaphysical innocence. They are unknowing and unenlightened, herded and manipulated by their “leaders,” that is, by their domesticators. Even were the masses to rise up in an American or European Spring to match the fleeting Arab one, the revolutionary democracy they would establish would inevitably become corrupted in the foreseeable, natural respects. The Arab Spring returned to the Sectarian Winter, because dominance hierarchies in the Middle East are robustly tribal rather than more narrowly economic, unlike those in the West. Our democracies degenerate into stealth plutocracies, whereas theirs collapse into full-blown dictatorships (Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are obvious exceptions).
No, the audacity of terrorism doesn’t belong to the terrorist’s harbouring of a quaint expectation that Western citizens could end the bombing campaigns in the Middle East, by voting in some preferable party. Indeed, any such expectation is likely a projection of Western liberals onto the radical Islamist. Instead, the power of terrorism is in the terrorist’s ability to strike a blow against true gods, the Western oligarchs, by undermining the ideology that sustains their dominance. The terrorist intends to attack “innocent civilians,” negating that innocence by desecrating a secular sanctuary. But if the innocence of those civilians is lost in the carnage, if we can no longer function as cattle-like consumers, worshipping our superiors by supplying them with mountains of cash, the oligarchs’ godlikeness is likewise undone and the mass hallucination of the Western social order is threatened with dissolution.
Again, exoterically, the Islamist terrorist means to strike a blow on behalf of the supernatural deity, Allah. Islam, however, is transparently an ideological support for theocratic dominance hierarchies in the Muslim world. Muslims are taught above all to submit, to know their place before a transcendent god, which gives way to their overlooking of the gross inequality between dominant and oppressed persons in their lands. The use of theistic religion to rigidify natural boundaries between strong or sociopathic persons and weak, gullible, or submissive ones is as old as civilization. Suicidal murderers from the Middle East are of course conditioned by Muslim propaganda and they believe that Allah’s will trumps secular laws and human power dynamics. But there obviously is no Allah. The gods who rule are the alpha beasts at the apex of every dominance hierarchy throughout the animal kingdom; the gods who live but don’t rule are the omega undoers of natural regularities, whose prophetic visions of ideal worlds drive our replacement of the wilderness and even of dominance hierarchies with our artificial habitats and anti-natural social arrangements, including science and egalitarian democracy. In effect, then, Islamist terrorism is an instrument in a struggle between rival gods. Dictators and the bureaucratic mullahs of the Middle Eastern deep states sustain the mass delusion of Islam, which in turn inflames the majority of bitter, oppressed and jealous Muslims, some of whom are inevitably radicalized and driven to militancy, thanks to the medieval mindset of their religion. The top one percent of the Muslim world likely share the same inner emptiness as that of the West, since earthly power naturally corrupts them all, rendering them more or less sociopathic. Regardless of the megalomaniacal, theistic fantasies that may haunt their extroverted, atrophied minds, their lack of conscience and complex emotions enslaves them to natural, in this case animalistic forces. They serve as robotic avatars of the wilderness, that is, of the natural world as we find it, prior to our modification of it. Their state-sponsored terrorism, then, amounts to one family of gods’ insult against another pantheon. The Middle Eastern oligarchs mock the Western ones, attempting to end the latters’ supremacy by demolishing the structure of Western society.