A Civilised Clash – Background

A Civilised Clash: Engaging with the theoretical debate through dance

By Haim Bresheeth

“…That’s not the way the world really works any more; We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality, and while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

A George W Bush Aide (1)

Background to production
I had wanted to deal with the corrosive effects of the famous Huntington thesis article, “A Clash of Civilisations” (2) for a long time, even before the coming of George W Bush presidency. After all, what Huntington was describing was well in place during his father’s reign and the first Gulf War (3), and was further developed and perfected ever since. Here was the new empire, openly eyeing its new potential, no longer playing at being coy about its vast powers and influence – military, political, financial and cultural. Even when writing in 1991 (4), it was clear then that the new empire will have to find and establish the new other, having just lost a long-cherished enemy due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. A proper enemy is the most important commodity of empires – without such an enemy their forces could not be grouped and exhorted into action. The lack of an enemy is of course also lack of funds to fight it, so much is at stake. Only such an enemy can justify publicly the move from a society based (mainly) on the production peacetime commodities, towards a society based on war economy (5 ) and on exploiting disaster-based politics. Instead of offering the citizens safety and security, as they openly profess to do, the new empire offers fear and loathing, a fragile world, where political instability is vying with global warming for destructive power. Utopia, as Frederick Jameson has argued, is not possible under US capitalism – there could obviously be no better society to look forward to – instead, the American dream is dystopian (6); never has this been clearer than in the last decade, with its harvest of dystopian dramas emerging from a Hollywood shaken by 9/11, one dsytopia it could not foresee. While Ronald Reagan started in Hollywood, a career he used well politically, it is George W Bush who looks and sounds as if he where an especially wild creation of a Hollywood scriptwriter, all fiction and no facts.

But behind the propaganda image projected by Bush, stand some intellectuals who are never content to “just study” what the ‘actors of history’ are doing. One of the most influential intellectuals in shaping the new empire, ‘the American Century’, was of course Samuel Huntington, who has been involved with the White House since the 1960’s, as President Johnson’s adviser. His advice has included a strong recommendation to bomb the countryside in Vietnam, as a way of breaking the Vietcong’s resistance. His advice to other presidents since then has been of the same type, and with the same general inclination to conflict over dialogue, and war over coexistence. Since 9/11, his clash of civilizations thesis has seen a keen revival in government and public circles, far beyond the narrow clique of the Republican right wing. So, while the public mood may be panning away from George W Bush, it is by no means moving away from the big project of the American Century, or giving up imperial powers and influence. If, as suggested by many (7) keen observers of US behaviour patterns, this pattern is at least as old as the early days of WW2, then both parties have shared it, and continue to do so, and Bush’s departure is not going to fundamentally change this. The long-term trajectory of the American empire has been in evidence for a long time now, and is just getting clearer as it gets more desperate, with time seemingly running out, and other, newer empires queuing to get in on the action. Thus, what before may have looked like a mere bid for influence, is now clearly what Chomsky (8) has called the ‘imperial grand strategy’, in force since 9/11. This is defined as the means of preventing any challenge to the “power. Position and prestige of the United States.” (9)

[photopress:Bobby_Soldier.jpg,thumb,alignleft]No empire can survive without a credible enemy, and the US is no exception. Enemies can be a moving feast, can change every now and then, as the need arises, but have to satisfy some basic premise. The Soviet Union was a very valuable enemy, not one easily recreated or found. Thus the end of the Soviet Bloc is heralding what Bush the father famously termed the New World Order, but also posed a great difficulty for the American Century project – the lack of a credible, threatening enemy. Huntington thesis is the result of this difficulty, threatening the very fabric of the empire. The search for a new evil was on, and there where few candidates who could fill the big boots of the Soviet Union. The choice was made some time before it became public and commonplace, in such pieces as the Huntington article. It was to be Islam, the civilization chosen for the new crusade, repeating an old historical pattern; Of all the ‘civilizations’ outlined by Huntington, the two he suggests as the most threatening to the American project are the Arabic and the Sinic. Indeed, since his piece was published the fight was on against both, if with different means and intensity, and different ends in mind. It is interesting to note that Hollywood is never faltering to be at the crest of the wave; in 1992, Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been launched, with Islam as the Sword of Damocles threatening Europe in Dracula’s tale. This was a mere swallow, which brought a long spring of threats to all screens around the world, and especially since September 2001. The new Satan was all in place to take over from the old one.

An important difference, not immediately understood, between Cold War analysis and the new Huntingtonian threats, was the fact that no longer was the conflict basically a political and ideological one, based on two opposing ways of understanding capitalism, but now the conflict was civilizational, one flowing from the very essential differences between cultures of East and West, of Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition. That made the conflict un-resolvable, as it depended on the very genetic print of different civilization, the very differences which make them what they are. After all, the west has won over communism by defeating it in the market-place, and saw its scions convert to market economies, unsatisfactory and undemocratic as the process was (and continues to be). In this new conflict, tells us Huntington, there is no halfway-house, no meeting place, no no-man’s-land in the middle, as it is polar, essentialist conflict, with the only resolution being the breaking down and total subjugation of the enemy. Even Huntington does not assume that Islam will change to accommodate the new empire, hence the ferocity of the struggle between two contenders for domination, as struggle in which no negotiation is possible, we are told. Indeed, such negotiation is totally missing, as the thesis has been widely accepted, without the great public debate that such a thesis should have aroused. In this battle, all will be harnessed for a win by the American state, argue Sardar and Wyn Davis – finance, armaments, culture, science and technology – all will be (are) recruited against the new axis-of-evil: “Science has become a commodity, an essential element of the war economy “. (10)

Indeed, such are the differences between both sides, that those very same areas of social discourse and power-management are seen as somehow being essentially western, and Islam being essentially backwards. Needless to say this avoids looking at the very rising of science in Europe, being born as it were from the fertile ground of Muslim Spain, or Andalus, where such scientific developments were the norm, as opposed to the rest of Europe where the Judeo-Christian tradition has crucified, sometimes literally, scientists such as Giordano Bruno and Baruch Spinosa. Thus, the battle between the western Judeo-Christian capitalism, and international Islam is presented as a battle over progress – a real non-analytical, a-historical travesty, powerful and successful nonetheless.

This complex context has been the background against which I wanted to pitch some video experimental work, almost as a cry in the wilderness, not because I or anyone else is in a position to change what Bush might do, but because the UK, under Blair and now under Brown, seems hell-bent on getting its marching orders from Washington, and has bought into the thesis without serious questioning, with the difference between the tow regimes of Blair and Brown being more of style than of content. The work discussed here is designed as an exposition of the likely consequences of the Huntingtonian thesis as a working assumption for political analysis and action. All the more reason for coming up with this concept…


1. Quoted in The Guardian, in “Bush is the embarrassing uncle the Republicans just can’t hide” by Gary Younge, August 20th, 2007, p. 25
2. Huntington, S. “A Clash of Civilisations”, in Foreign Affairs, Summer issue, 1993. This was later written into a monograph by the same name, published in 1996, published by Simon and Schuster, New York.
3. See Bresheeth, H. “The New World Order” in H. Bresheeth and N Yuval-Davis (eds) The Gulf War and the New World Order, Zed Books, London 1991, pp 243-256.
4. Ibid, pages 248-250
5. Klein, N. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Allen Lane, London, 2007
6. Sardar, Z. and Wyn Davies, M. American Dream, Global Nightmare: Why Do People Hate America, Icon Books, London, 2004.
7. For example, Bloom, W. Rogue State, Zed Books, London 2003. Bloom himself worked at the State Department, and describes US policy from a position of inside knowledge. Another well-known critic of American imperial designs is Noam Chomsky, whose book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (Penguin, London 2003) describes a similar outline.
8. Chomsky, N. book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Penguin Books, London 2003, p. 14
9. ibid, p.14
10. Sardar, Z and Wyn Davis, M , 2004, p.185

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