Today, March 19, marks the start of what for the Romans was the Festival of Minerva, based on a cult of worship of a goddess of “wisdom” and “war.” It is also the 10th anniversary of the start of the U.S. war against the people of Iraq, and, as many will forget, the 2nd anniversary of the start of aerial bombardment of Libya by the U.S. and its NATO allies. Interesting coincidences, that two of the most atrocious imperial wars of the new millennium should start on a date once reserved for venerating Minerva. Appropriate too, with Minerva being a female figure, that this date also marks the very first International Women’s Day in 1911, worth reflecting upon in light of the many ways that U.S. imperialism has manipulated and appropriated “feminism” as a tool of war, deployed in counterinsurgency and through various State Department-funded programs to stick a U.S. crowbar into other societies in the name of “universal human rights” and “democracy.”
Imperialism, War, Knowledge
However, the anniversaries of these two wars should bring Western academics back to recognition of the very roots of their social theories as being imperialist ones. Modern social theory is imperialist, an imperial knowledge system that is entirely unreflexive about the conditions of its making. Useful for dominant European self-conceptions of their progress or evolutionary achievement, were a whole series of theories that ironically established war as the province of primitive societies, thus producing one of a series of dominant Western myths of war.
Here I consulted some of the work of Stephen P. Reyna, anthropologist (and look, there is the medallion of Minerva herself as the emblem for the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, associated with the Minerva Stiftung, but separate from that other Minerva program we already know about in the U.S. social sciences–the circle just continues). This is what Reyna says on page 1 of his “Introduction: Deadly Developments and Phantasmagoric Representations” (in S.P. Reyna and R.E. Downs, [Eds.], Deadly Developments: Capitalism, States, and War [pp. 1-21]. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1997):
“Classical nineteenth century social theory arose as an attempt to understand the emergence of modernity. Theorists thought that modern society was ‘civilized,’ and that this quality was related to economic developments. So thinkers proceeded by formulating economic dichotomies that distinguished the uncivilized from the civilized. Saint-Simon made the main dichotomy one between feudal and industrial economies; Comte and Spencer distinguished military and industrial societies; Marx emphasized the transition from precapitalist to capitalist modes of production; and Durkheim believed that segmental societies integrated by mechanical solidarity, evolved into industrial ones, integrated by organic solidarity. Not only Comte and Spencer, but Marx and Durkheim as well believed that war dominated the earlier societies and that it would become infrequent, or die out entirely, in states with industrial capitalism. Classical social theory, then, to a considerable degree, represented modern social order to be one of pacific, capitalist states developing out of some warring uncivilized Other.”
In light of my comments preceding Reyna’s passage above, we could rewrite some of the key initial sentences as follows:
Classical nineteenth century social theory emerged from imperial Europe, as an attempt to understand a modernity that was fashioned and imagined as a historical stage different from that of Europe’s colonized populations, part of a larger discourse of self-justification for ruling others. Theorists thought that modern, i.e. European, society was ‘civilized,’ and that this quality was related to economic developments, the most advanced of these being grounded in imperialist extraction of the labour and resources of Europe’s colonies….Classical social theory, to a considerable degree, represented modern social order to be one of pacific capitalist states developing out of some warring uncivilized Other, like the ‘uncivilized Others’ against whom European states waged wars of conquest and occupation.
The ideas of European capitalist progress and civilization, preposterous as they are, have unfortunately not expired. George W. Bush liked to publicly characterize the U.S. as the leader of the “civilized world,” fighting against evil others. Meanwhile, in an unimaginative rehashing of nineteenth century ideas, Steven Pinker argues that the “artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction,” with the result not only that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time,” but also that “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.” Read his article introducing his thesis, and Iraq is not mentioned even once. Great theory.
Civilization through Torture
As if to further “prove” our civilization, and the benefits of our civilizing mission, we now have more evidence of the nature and degree of U.S. atrocities committed in Iraq under General David Petraeus. In case you missed any of these, here is a listing of special reports:
From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads
In 2004, with the war in Iraq going from bad to worse, the US drafted in a veteran of Central America’s dirty wars to help set up a new force to fight the insurgency. The result: secret detention centres, torture and a spiral into sectarian carnage
Nonetheless, as Americans continue to “stand idly by” in the face of their own atrocities and massacres, the “humanitarians” among them will continue to preach the discourse of civilization in the form of the “duty” to “protect” the victims of barbaric Others. Enjoy your day of being told by U.S. media that Iraqis are “probably better off,” and that the real losses to mourn are those of U.S. troops, and the many accumulating costs of war, as if you should never have to pay for what you do to others, as if the world should always be a source of ceaseless rewards and acclaim for you.