Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The radical loser

 by  Hans Magnus Enzensberger


Hans Magnus Enzensberger looks at the kind of ideological trigger required to ignite the radical loser - whether amok killer, murderer or terrorist - and make him explode

I. The isolated individual

It is difficult to talk about the loser, and it is stupid not to. Stupid because there can be no definitive winner and because each of us, from the megalomaniac Bonaparte to the last beggar on the streets of Calcutta, will meet the same fate. Difficult because to content oneself with this metaphysical banality is to take an easy way out, as it ignores the truly explosive dimension of the problem, the political dimension.

Instead of actually looking into the thousand faces of the loser, sociologists keep to their statistics: median value, standard deviation, normal distribution. It rarely occurs to them that they themselves might be among the losers. Their definitions are like scratching a wound: as Samuel Butler says, the itching and the pain only get worse. One thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself – "capitalism", "competition", "empire", "globalization" – not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come.

Those who content themselves with the objective, material criteria, the indices of the economists and the devastating findings of the empiricists, will understand nothing of the true drama of the radical loser. What others think of him – be they rivals or brothers, experts or neighbours, schoolmates, bosses, friends or foes – is not sufficient motivation. The radical loser himself must take an active part, he must tell himself: I am a loser and nothing but a loser. As long as he is not convinced of this, life may treat him badly, he may be poor and powerless, he may know misery and defeat, but he will not become a radical loser until he adopts the judgement of those who consider themselves winners as his own.

Since before the attack on the World Trade Center, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists have been searching in vain for a reliable pattern. Neither poverty nor the experience of political repression alone seem to provide a satisfactory explanation for why young people actively seek out death in a grand bloody finale and aim to take as many people with them as possible. Is there a phenotype that displays the same characteristics down the ages and across all classes and cultures?
No one pays any mind to the radical loser if they do not have to. And the feeling is mutual. As long as he is alone – and he is very much alone – he does not strike out. He appears unobtrusive, silent: a sleeper. But when he does draw attention to himself and enter the statistics, then he sparks consternation bordering on shock. For his very existence reminds the others of how little it would take to put them in his position. One might even assist the loser if only he would just give up. But he has no intention of doing so, and it does not look as if he would be partial to any assistance.

Many professions take the loser as the object of their studies and as the basis for their existence. Social psychologists, social workers, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without him. But with the best will in the world, the client remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds. One thing they do know is that the radical loser is hard to get through to and, ultimately, unpredictable. Identifying the one person among the hundreds passing through their offices and surgeries who is prepared to go all the way is more than they are capable of. Maybe they sense that this is not just a social issue that can be repaired by bureaucratic means. For the loser keeps his ideas to himself. That is the trouble. He keeps quiet and waits. He lets nothing show, which is precisely why he is feared. In historical terms, this fear is very old, but today it is more justified than ever. Anyone with the smallest scrap of power within society will at times feel something of the huge destructive energy that lies within the radical loser and which no intervention can neutralize, however well-meaning or serious it might be.

He can explode at any moment. This is the only solution to his problem that he can imagine: a worsening of the evil conditions under which he suffers. The newspapers run stories on him every week: the father of two who killed his wife, his small children and finally himself. Unthinkable! A headline in the local section: A Family Tragedy. Or the man who suddenly barricades himself in his apartment, taking the landlord, who wanted money from him, as his hostage. When the police finally gets to the scene, he starts shooting. He is then said to have "run amok", a word borrowed from the Malayan. He kills an officer before collapsing in the shower of bullets. What triggered this explosion remains unclear. His wife's nagging perhaps, noisy neighbours, an argument at the pub, or the bank cancelling his loan. A disparaging remark from a superior is enough to make the man climb a tower and start firing at anything that moves outside the supermarket, not in spite of but precisely because of the fact that this massacre will accelerate his own end. Where on earth did he get that machine pistol from?

At last, this radical loser – he may be just fifteen and having a hard time with his spots – at last, he is master over life and death. Then, in the newsreader's words, he "dies at his own hands" and the investigators get down to work. They find a few videos, a few confused journal entries. The parents, neighbours, teachers noticed nothing unusual. A few bad grades, for sure, a certain reticence – the boy didn't talk much. But that is no reason to shoot dead a dozen of his schoolmates. The experts deliver their verdicts. Cultural critics bring forth their arguments. Inevitably, they speak of a "debate on values". The search for reasons comes to nothing. Politicians express their dismay. The conclusion is reached that it was an isolated case.

This is correct, since the culprits are always isolated individuals who have found no access to a collective. And it is incorrect, since isolated cases of this kind are becoming more and more frequent. This increase leads one to conclude that there are more and more radical losers. This is due to the so-called "state of things." This might refer equally to the world market or to an insurance company that refuses to pay.

But anyone wishing to understand the radical loser would be well advised to go a little further back. Progress has not put an end to human suffering, but it has changed it in no small way. Over the past two centuries, the more successful societies have fought for and established new rights, new expectations and new demands. They have done away with the notion of an inevitable fate. They have put concepts like human dignity and human rights on the agenda. The have democratized the struggle for recognition and awakened expectations of equality which they are unable to fulfil. And at the same time, they have made sure that inequality is constantly demonstrated to all of the planet's inhabitants round the clock on every television channel. As a result, with every stage of progress, people's capacity for disappointment has increased accordingly.

"Where cultural progress is genuinely successful and ills are cured, this progress is seldom received with enthusiasm," remarks the philosopher Odo Marquard (book): "Instead, they are taken for granted and attention focuses on those ills that remain. And these remaining ills are subject to the law of increasing annoyance. The more negative elements disappear from reality, the more annoying the remaining negative elements become, precisely because of this decrease in numbers."

This is an understatement. For what we are dealing with here is not annoyance, but murderous rage. What the loser is obsessed with is a comparison that never works in his favour. Since the desire for recognition knows no limits, the pain threshold inevitably sinks and the affronts become more and more unbearable. The irritability of the loser increases with every improvement that he notices in the lot of others. The yardstick is never those who are worse off than himself. In his eyes, it is not they who are constantly being insulted, humbled and humiliated, but only ever him, the radical loser.

The question as to why this should be so only adds to his torment. Because it certainly cannot be his own fault. That is inconceivable. Which is why he must find the guilty ones who are responsible for his plight.

But who are these omnipotent, nameless aggressors? Thrown back entirely on his own resources, the answer to this nagging question is beyond the isolated individual. If no ideological program comes to his aid, then his search is unlikely to extend to the wider societal context, looking instead to his immediate surroundings and finding: the unjust superior, the unruly wife, the bad neighbour, the conniving co-worker, the inflexible public official, the doctor who refuses to give him a medical certificate.

But might he not also be facing the machinations of some invisible, anonymous enemy? Then the loser would not need to rely on his own experience: he could fall back on things he heard somewhere. Few people have the gift of inventing a delusion for themselves that fits their needs. Consequently, the loser will most often stick to material that floats freely within society. The threatening powers that are out to get him are not hard to locate. The usual suspects are foreigners, secret services, Communists, Americans, big corporations, politicians, unbelievers. And, almost always, the Jews.

For a while, this kind of delusion may bring the loser relief, but it will not be able to actually pacify him. In the long term, it is hard to assert oneself in the face of a hostile world, and he can never entirely rid himself of the suspicion that there might be a simpler explanation, namely that he is responsible, that his humiliation is his own fault, that he does not merit the esteem he craves, and that his own life is worthless. Psychologists call this affliction "identifying with the aggressor". But what is that supposed to mean? It certainly has no meaning for the loser. But if his own life is worthless, why should he care about the lives of others?

"It's my fault." – "The others are responsible." These two claims are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they reinforce each other. The radical loser is unable to think his way out of this vicious circle, and it constitutes the source of his terrible power.

The only way out of the dilemma is to fuse destruction and self-destruction, aggression and auto-aggression. On the one hand, at the moment of his explosion, the loser for once experiences a feeling of true power. His act allows him to triumph over others by annihilating them. And on the other, he does justice to the reverse of this feeling of power, the suspicion that his own existence might be worthless, by putting an end to it.

As an additional bonus, from the moment he resorts to armed force, the outside world, which has never wanted to know anything about him, takes notice of him. The media make sure he is granted an enormous degree of publicity – even if it is for just 24 hours. Television spreads propaganda for his act, thus encouraging potential imitators. For minors, as shown by events in the United States in particular, the temptation this represents is hard to resist.

The logic of the radical loser cannot be grasped in terms of common sense. Common sense cites the instinct of self-preservation as if it were an unquestionable fact of nature, to be taken for granted. Whereas in fact, it is a fragile notion, quite young in historical terms. Self-preservation is referred to by the Greeks, by Hobbes and Spinoza, but it is not considered as a purely natural drive. Instead, according to Immanuel Kant, "the... first duty of the human individual towards himself in the quality of his animalness is self-preservation in his animal nature." Only in the nineteenth century did this duty become an inviolable fact of natural science. Few deviated from this view. Nietzsche objected that physiologists should avoid, "fixing the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being." But among those who would always rather survive, his words have always fallen on deaf ears.

The history of ideas aside, humanity never seems to have expected individual lives to be treated as the supreme good. All early religions set great store by human sacrifice. Later, martyrs were highly valued. (According to Blaise Pascal's fatal maxim, one should "only believe witnesses who allow themselves to be killed.") In most cultures, heroes acquired fame and honour for their fearlessness in the face of death. Until the mass slaughter of World War I, secondary school pupils had to learn the notorious verse from Horace according to which is sweet and honourable to die for one's fatherland. Others claimed that shipping was necessary, but not staying alive; during the Cold War there were those who shouted "Better dead than red!" And what, under perfectly civilian conditions, are we to think of tightrope walkers, extreme sports, motor racing, polar exploration and other forms of potential suicide?

Clearly, the instinct of self-preservation is not up to much. The remarkable fondness of the human species for suicide, down the ages and across all cultures, is proof enough of this. No taboo and no threat of punishment have been able keep people from taking their own lives. This tendency cannot be quantified. Any attempt to grasp it by means of statistics will fail due to the huge number of unrecorded cases.

Sigmund Freud tried to solve the problem theoretically, on an unstable empirical basis, by developing his concept of the death drive. Freud's hypothesis is expressed more clearly in the familiar old wisdom that situations may arise in which humans prefer a terrible end to (real or imagined) terror without end.

II. The collective

But what happens when the radical loser overcomes his isolation, when he becomes socialized, finds a loser-home, from which he can expect not only understanding but also recognition, a collective of people like himself who welcome him, who need him?

Then, the destructive energy that lies within him is multiplied – his unscrupulousness, his amalgam of death-wish and megalomania – and he is rescued from his powerlessness by a fatal sense of omnipotence.

For this to take place, however, a kind of ideological trigger is required to ignite the radical loser and make him explode. As history shows us, offers of this kind have never been in short supply. Their content is of the least importance. They may be religious or political doctrines, nationalist, communist or racist dogmas – any form of sectarianism, however bigoted, is capable of mobilizing the latent energy of the radical loser.

This applies not only to the rank and file but also to their commanders, whose attraction is based in turn on their own self-definition as obsessive losers. It is precisely the leader's deluded traits in which his followers recognize themselves. He is rightly accused of being cynical and calculating. It is only natural that he should despise his followers. He understands them all too well. He knows they are losers and, finally, he thus considers them worthless. And as Elias Canetti put it half a century ago, he therefore takes pleasure in the idea that if possible, everyone else, including his followers, should meet their death before he himself is hanged or consumed by fire in his bunker.

At this point, alongside many other examples from history, one cannot help being reminded of the National Socialist project in Germany. At the end of the Weimar Republic, large sections of the population saw themselves as losers. The objective data tell a clear story. But the economic crisis and mass unemployment would probably not have been enough to bring Hitler to power. For that to happen, it took propaganda aimed at the subjective factor: the blow dealt to people's pride by the defeat of 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles. Most Germans sought to blame others: the victorious powers, the "global Capitalist-Bolshevist conspiracy" and above all, of course, the eternal scapegoat, Judaism. The tormenting feeling of being in the position of the loser could only be compensated for by pursuing an offensive strategy, by seeking refuge in megalomania. From the outset, the Nazis entertained delusions of world domination. As such, their goals were boundless and non-negotiable. In this sense, they were not only unreal, but also non-political.

Consulting a map was never going to be enough to persuade Hitler and his followers that the struggle of one small European country against the rest of the world was hopeless. On the contrary. The radical loser has no notion of resolving conflicts, of compromise that might involve him in a normal network of interests and defuse his destructive energy. The more hopeless his project, the more fanatically he clings to it. There are grounds to suspect that Hitler and his followers were interested not in victory, but in radicalizing and eternalizing their own status as losers.

Their pent up anger discharged itself in a war of unprecedented destruction against all those others who they blamed for their own defeats. First and foremost, it was a matter of destroying the Jews and the opponents of 1919. But they certainly had no intention of sparing the Germans. Their actual objective was not victory, but elimination, downfall, collective suicide, the terrible end. There is no other explanation for the way the Germans fought on in World War II right to the last pile of rubble in Berlin. Hitler himself confirmed this diagnosis when he said that the German people did not deserve to survive. At a huge cost, he achieved what he wanted – he lost. But the Jews, the Poles, the Russians, the Germans and all the others are still around.

The radical loser has not disappeared either. He is still among us. This is inevitable. On every continent, there are leaders who welcome him with open arms. Except that today, they are very rarely associated with the state. In this field too, privatization has made considerable advances. Although it is governments which have at their disposal the greatest potential for extermination, state crime in the conventional sense is now on the defensive worldwide.

To date, few loser-collectives have operated on a global scale, even if they were able to count on international flows of cash and weapon supplies. But the world is teeming with local groupings whose leaders are referred to as warlords or guerrilla chiefs. Their self-appointed militias and paramilitary gangs like to adorn themselves with the title of a liberation organization or other revolutionary attributes. In some media, they are referred to as rebels, a euphemism that probably flatters them. Shining Path, MLC, RCD, SPLA, ELA, LTTE, LRA, FNL, IRA, LIT, KACH, DHKP, FSLN, UVF, JKLF, ELN, FARC, PLF, GSPC, MILF, NPA, PKK, MODEL, JI, NPA, AUC, CPNML, UDA, GIA, RUF, LVF, SNM, ETA, NLA, PFLP, SPM, LET, ONLF, SSDF, PIJ, JEM, SLA, ANO, SPLMA, RAF, AUM, PGA, ADF, IBDA, ULFA, PLFM, ULFBV, ISYF, LURD, KLO, UPDS, NLFT, ATTF ...

"Left" or "Right", it makes no odds. Each of these armed rabbles calls itself an army, boasts of brigades and commandos, self-importantly issuing bureaucratic communiqués and boastful claims of responsibility, acting as if they were the representatives of "the masses". Being convinced, as radical losers, of the worthlessness of their own lives, they do not care about the lives of anyone else either; any concern for survival is foreign to them. And this applies equally to their opponents, to their own followers, and to those with no involvement whatsoever. They have a penchant for kidnapping and murdering people who are trying to relieve the misery of the region they are terrorizing, shooting aid workers and doctors and burning down every last hospital in the area with a bed or a scalpel – for they have trouble distinguishing between mutilation and self-mutilation.

But none of these mobs has been able to keep up with globalization. In cases where their ideological exploitation focuses on national and ethnic conflicts, this is only natural. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, groups seeing themselves in the tradition of internationalism have forfeited the support of a superpower in terms of propaganda and logistics. Under the pressure of global capital, they have abandoned their fantasies of world domination and now claim only to represent the interests of their local clientele.

Since this cut-off point, only one violent movement has been capable of acting globally – Islamism. It is undertaking a large-scale attempt to siphon off the religious energy of a world faith with around 1.3 billion believers that is not only still very much alive, but which even in purely demographic terms is also expanding on every continent. Although this Umma is subject to much inner fragmentation and badly affected by national and social conflicts, the ideology of Islamism is an ideal means of mobilizing radical losers because of the way it amalgamates religious, political and social motives.

A further promise of success lies in the movement's organizational model. Turning its back on the strict centralism of earlier groupings, it has replaced the omniscient and omnipotent central committee with a flexible network: a highly original innovation that is entirely of its time.

Besides this, however, the Islamists are perfectly happy to plunder the arsenal of their predecessors. It is often overlooked that modern terrorism is a European invention of the nineteenth century. Its most important ancestors came from Czarist Russia, but it can also look back on a long history in Western Europe. In recent times, the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s has proved a source of inspiration, with Islamists borrowing many of its symbols and techniques. The style of their announcements, the use of video recordings, the emblematic significance of the Kalashnikov, even the gestures, body language and dress, all this shows how much they have learned from these western role models.

There is also no mistaking other similarities, such as the fixation with written authorities. The place of Marx and Lenin is taken by the Koran, references are made not to Gramsci but to Sayyid Qutb. Instead of the international proletariat, it takes as its revolutionary subject the Umma, and as its avant-garde and self-appointed representative of the masses it takes not The Party but the widely branching conspiratorial network of Islamist fighters. Although the movement can draw on older rhetorical forms which to outsiders may sound high-flown or big-mouthed, it owes many of its idées fixes to its Communist enemy: history obeys rigid laws, victory is inevitable, deviationists and traitors are to be exposed and then, in fine Leninist tradition, bombarded with ritual insults.

The movement's list of favourite foes is also short on surprises: America, the decadent West, international capital, Zionism. The list is completed by the unbelievers, that is to say the remaining 5.2 billion people on the planet. Not forgetting apostate Muslims who may be found among the Shiites, Ibadhis, Alawites, Zaidites, Ahmadiyyas, Wahhabis, Druze, Sufis, Kharijites, Ishmaelites or other religious communities.

III. The spectacle

In one respect, however, the Islamists are without doubt a twenty-first-century phenomenon: where their understanding of the media is concerned, they leave their predecessors far behind. Earlier disciples of terror also relied on "propaganda through action", but the kind of worldwide attention achieved today by a nebulous grouping like Al Qaida was not granted to them. Trained by television, computer technology, the Internet and advertising, Islamist terror now gets higher viewer ratings than any football World Cup. The all-important massacres are staged in Hollywood-inspired style, modelled on disaster films, splatter movies and science fiction thrillers. This too is evidence of a dependency on the hated West. In the media output of terrorism, the Society of the Spectacle as described by the Situationists comes into its own.

More momentous still, however, is the strategic use of suicide attacks, an invincible weapon that cannot be seen by surveillance satellites and which can be deployed practically anywhere. It is also extremely cheap. In addition to these advantages, this form of terror also exerts an irresistible attraction on the radical loser. It allows him to combine destruction and self-destruction at the same time as acting out both his megalomaniac fantasies and his self-hate. Cowardice is the last thing he can be accused of. The courage that is his hallmark is the courage of despair. His triumph consists in the fact that he can be neither fought nor punished, since he takes care of that himself.

Contrary to what the West appears to believe, the destructive energy of Islamist actions is directed mainly against Muslims. This is not a tactical error, not a case of "collateral damage". In Algeria alone, Islamist terror has cost the lives of at least 50,000 fellow Algerians. Other sources speak of as many as 150,000 murders, although the military and the secret services were also involved. In Iraq and Afghanistan, too, the number of Muslim victims far outstrips the death toll among foreigners. Furthermore, terrorism has been highly detrimental not only to the image of Islam but also to the living conditions of Muslims around the world.

The Islamists are as unconcerned about this as the Nazis were about the downfall of Germany. As the avant-garde of death, they have no regard for the lives of their fellow believers. In the eyes of the Islamists, the fact that most Muslims have no desire to blow themselves and others sky high only goes to show that they deserve no better than to be liquidated themselves. After all, the aim of the radical loser is to make as many other people into losers as possible. As the Islamists see it, the fact that they are in the minority can only be because they are the chosen few.

Experts around the world are not the only ones wondering how the Islamist movement has been able to recruit so many activists with its promises, far outdoing its secular rivals. No clear answer is in sight. All that is clear is that there must be explanations in the history of the Arab civilization that brought forth the world religion of Islam. This civilization reached its apogee at the time of the Caliphate. At this time, it was far superior to Europe in military, economic and cultural terms. The Arab world views this period with misty-eyed nostalgia; even today, 800 years later, it plays a central role in the consciousness of the region. In the intervening period, the power, the prestige, the cultural and economic weight of the Arab world has been in continual decline. Such an unparalleled demise is a puzzle and a sore point, generating an acute sense of loss. The Indian-born Muslim poet Hussain Hali (1837-1914) expressed this in his epic poem The Ebb and Flow of Islam:

"The historians doing research today
whose scientific methods are magnificent,
who plumb the archives of the world
and explore the surface of the earth –
the Arabs fuelled the fire in their hearts,
their rapid gait was learned from the Arabs."

Looking down from this high ground, Hali describes the decline over time, in several stanzas, the last of which reads:

"We are neither trustworthy government officials
nor proud towards courtiers,
we do not earn respect in the sciences,
nor do we excel in crafts and industry."

It is not easy to put oneself in the position of a collective that has experienced such a downfall extending over a period of hundreds of years. No wonder the blame is put on a hostile outside world in the form of the Spaniards, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the European colonial powers and the American empire. But other societies such as India, China and Korea have suffered no less under the rule of invaders and from the attacks and raids of foreign powers. But in spite of this, they have successfully faced the challenges of modernity and risen to become important players on a global scale. The question therefore inevitably poses itself as to the endogenous causes of the downfall of the Arab world. As long as this question remains unanswered, the Arab world's enormous scientific, technical and industrial deficit will remain unexplained and inexplicable.

The Arab world's sense of pride is hurt not only by military inferiority to the West. Far worse is the impact of intellectual and material dependency. In the last 400 years, not a single noteworthy invention was made by the Arabs. Rudolph Chimelli quotes one Iraqi author as saying: "If an Arab had invented the steam engine in the 18th century, it would not have been built." No historian would contradict him. This means that for any Arab who cares to think about it, the very objects on which everyday life in the Maghreb and the Middle East depends represent an unspoken humiliation – every fridge, every telephone, every power socket, every screwdriver, not to mention hi-tech products. Even the parasitic oil states, frittering away their future security, are obliged to import the technology from abroad; without Western geologists, drilling experts and civil engineers, fleets of tankers and refineries they would not even be capable of exploiting their own resources. In this light, even their wealth is a curse that constantly reminds them of their dependency. Not including the revenue from crude oil, the economic performance of the entire Arab world today counts for less than that of a single Finnish telecommunications company.

The Arab world has proved similarly unproductive where its political institutions are concerned. Imported forms of nationalism and socialism have failed everywhere, and democratic stirrings are routinely nipped in the bud. Of course, blanket statements of this kind can only aim to say something about the state of the whole. They tell us nothing about individual capabilities, that are subject the world over to the genetic normal distribution. But in many Arab countries, anyone who expresses independent ideas puts their own life at risk. Which is why many of the best scientists, engineers, writers and political thinkers live in exile, a brain drain that can certainly be compared with the exodus of Jewish elites from Germany in the 1930s, and which is likely to have similarly far-reaching consequences.

Although the methods of repression that are customary in Arab countries refer back to the traditions of oriental despotism, in this field too, the unbelievers have proved indispensable as teachers. From machine pistols through to poison gas, they invented and exported all of the weapons that have been used in the Arab-Islamic world. Arab rulers also studied and adopted the methods of the GPU and the Gestapo. And of course, Islamist terrorism is also unable to do without such borrowings. Its entire technical arsenal, from explosives to satellite telephones, from aircraft to television cameras, comes from the hated West.

That such an all-encompassing dependency should be experienced as unbearable makes perfect sense. Especially among displaced migrants, regardless of their economic situation, the confrontation with Western civilisation leads to a lasting culture shock. The apparent superabundance of products, opinions, economic and sexual options leads to a double bind of attraction and revulsion, and the abiding memory of the backwardness of one's own culture becomes intolerable. The consequences for one's own sense of self-esteem are clear, as is the urge to compensate by means of conspiracy theories and acts of vengeance. In this situation, many people cannot resist the temptation of the Islamists' offer to punish others for their own failings.

Solutions to the dilemma of the Arab world are of no interest to Islamism, which does not go beyond negation. Strictly speaking, it is a non-political movement, since it makes no negotiable demands. Put bluntly, it would like the majority of the planet's inhabitants, all the unbelievers and apostates, to capitulate or be killed.

This burning desire cannot be fulfilled. The destructive energy of the radical losers is doubtless sufficient to kill thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and to cause lasting damage to the civilization on which they have declared war. One indication of the potential impact of a few dozen human bombs is the level of day-to-day controls that has come to be the norm.

But this is actually the least of the losses to civilization resulting from terrorism. It can create a general atmosphere of fear and trigger counter-reactions based on panic. It boosts the power and influence of the political police, of the secret services, of the arms industry and of private security operatives; it encourages the passing of increasingly repressive laws and leads to the loss of hard-won freedoms. No conspiracy theories are required to understand that there are people who welcome these consequences of terror. There is nothing better than an external enemy with which to justify surveillance and repression. Where this leads is shown by the example of Russian domestic policy.

The Islamists can consider all this a success. But it makes no difference to the actual power relations. Even the spectacular attack on the World Trade Center was not able to shake the supremacy of the United States. The New York Stock Exchange reopened the Monday after the attacks, and the long-term impact on the international financial system and world trade was minimal.

The consequences for Arab societies, on the other hand, are fatal. For the most devastating long-term effects will be born not by the West, but by the religion in whose name the Islamists act. Not just refugees, asylum seekers and migrants will suffer as a result. Beyond any sense of justice, entire peoples will have to pay a huge price for the actions of their self-appointed representatives. The idea that their prospects, which are bad enough as it is, could be improved through terrorism is absurd. History offers no example of a regressive society that stifled its own productive potential being capable of survival in the long term.

The project of the radical loser, as currently seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, consists of organizing the suicide of an entire civilisation. But the likelihood of their succeeding in an unlimited generalization of their death cult is negligible. Their attacks represent a permanent background risk, like ordinary everyday deaths by accident on the streets, to which we have become accustomed.

In a global society that constantly produces new losers, this is something we will have to live with.


The article originally appeared in German in Der Spiegel on November 7, 2005.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of modern Germany's most interesting and celebrated writers. Among his books of poetry are "The Sinking of the Titanic" and "Mausoleum". His prose works include "Europe, Europe" and "Civil Wars".

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Jonathan Swift - A Modest Proposal


For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland,
from being a burden on their parents or country,
and for making them beneficial to the publick.

by Dr. Jonathan Swift


It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.

As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands.
There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand, for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses, (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers: As I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flea the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.

As to our City of Dublin, shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most convenient parts of it, and butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.

A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supply'd by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service: And these to be disposed of by their parents if alive, or otherwise by their nearest relations. But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as to the males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent experience, that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our school-boys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable, and to fatten them would not answer the charge. Then as to the females, it would, I think, with humble submission, be a loss to the publick, because they soon would become breeders themselves: And besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty's prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.
Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken, to ease the nation of so grievous an incumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the young labourers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away from want of nourishment, to a degree, that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labour, they have not strength to perform it, and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.

I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject. I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.
For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country, than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.

Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to a distress, and help to pay their landlord's rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.

Thirdly, Whereas the maintainance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation's stock will be thereby encreased fifty thousand pounds per annum, besides the profit of a new dish, introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom, who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among our selves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.

Fourthly, The constant breeders, besides the gain of eight shillings sterling per annum by the sale of their children, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year.

Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns, where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection; and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating; and a skilful cook, who understands how to oblige his guests, will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.

Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would encrease the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the publick, to their annual profit instead of expence. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.
Many other advantages might be enumerated. For instance, the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation of barrel'd beef: the propagation of swine's flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat yearly child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor's feast, or any other publick entertainment. But this, and many others, I omit, being studious of brevity.

Supposing that one thousand families in this city, would be constant customers for infants flesh, besides others who might have it at merry meetings, particularly at weddings and christenings, I compute that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses; and the rest of the kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand.

I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and 'twas indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.
But, as to my self, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.

After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points. First, As things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. And secondly, There being a round million of creatures in humane figure throughout this kingdom, whose whole subsistence put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million of pounds sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession, to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers, with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect; I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.