Saturday, April 15, 2006

Terror and Liberalism, 5/7

But let’s now take a look at some of the ways in which Berman discusses selected episodes in the grim history of terrorism and mass death, partly to continue with the theme of how he uses his source material, and partly to consider how he uses the framework for thinking about politics that he’s been building in Terror and Liberalism to, well, think about politics. And let’s begin a hundred years ago, with Berman’s discussion of mass murder in colonial Africa.

Why did the Belgians kill quite so many people in central Africa? The most obvious answer would to be that it has something to do with the search for rubber profits. With moral inhibitions against killing lowered for a number of reasons – to do with physical distance from home, the absence of the rule of law, racism and so on – the Belgians and their agents found that killing large numbers of Congolese was a pretty effective way of turning the jungle’s rubber into economic profit. Over to Paul Berman now, for an alternative take on the question:
"What was the logic behind the slaughter of Congolese by Belgians? The Belgians would have given various explanations. But ultimately there was no logic. The Belgians took up murder for murder's sake." [p.39]
No mention of commercial considerations at all. (Berman’s silences about capitalism throughout this book are striking, to say the least.)

And when Berman turns to a different genocidal episode in Africa, he again shows himself unable to write without misleading. The Germans killed thousands of Hereros in German Southwest Africa (now Namibia) in a military campaign in 1904, and thousands more were driven out of German territory into the desert, where they died, as part of a deliberate policy of genocide. When the extermination campaign was brought to an end, those who had survived were then rounded up and put in concentration camps, and these were nasty work-camps, and a lot of the people in them died there in the years that followed. [See Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy, pp.103-6 for a few more details.] Berman’s account of the whole genocide, by contrast: “In 1904, the Germans set up extermination camps in order to wipe out a troublesome ethnic group, the Herero tribe. Such was the white man’s burden.” [p.40]. Not only, then, does the sentence make a false claim – for the camps were not set up in order to wipe out the Hereros – but Berman chooses the term “extermination camps”, a description which we usually reserve for the Nazi camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Majdanek, and which we might use for horrifying places like Choeung Ek, but always in order to distinguish them from many other twentieth-century concentration camps which were brutal, and where many people died, but whose raison d’être was not to kill people in their thousands and thousands and thousands. And we make the distinction not to excuse what went on in Nazi concentration camps (“Dachau wasn’t that bad, after all”), but to highlight the quite exceptional evil of these particular establishments. Such a distinction doesn’t seem to matter, however, in the history of the world according to Paul Berman.

And as if this weren’t enough, when Berman turns to the campaign against the Belgians’ atrocities, he misdescribes that, too! Berman writes, in a classic bit of Decency: "The deaths of millions duly came about - and hardly anyone, apart from the victims, sounded a protest. A few noble individuals. No one else." [p.40] Let’s turn to Adam Hoschild’s excellent book, King Leopold’s Ghost, the work Berman alludes to [p.39], and which is probably now the most widely-read book on the subject. We’re told there that campaign organiser E. D. Morel spoke at fifty mass meetings between 1907 and 1909 [KLG, p.211] or that "[b]efore the end of 1905, more than sixty mass meetings had adopted a resolution condemning Leopold's rule" [p.214]. The Congo Reform Association operated in Britain, Germany, France, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and other countries [p.236]. One of the plates in the book is of a poster for an advertisement for a meeting in the Royal Albert Hall (19 November 1909), and on the whole, then as now, you don’t book the Royal Albert Hall if you think that just a handful of “noble individuals” is going to show up. “Although they failed to end forced labour, the Congo reformers for roughly a decade were spectacularly successful in keeping the territory in the spotlight”, writes Hochschild [p.279], and that “Seldom has so much outrage poured down for so long upon such a distant target.” In Berman’s hands, this is turned upside down, inside out and back to front, for when you read King Leopold’s Ghost through Berman-tinted spectacles, you come instead to the Through-the-Looking-Glass conclusion that “hardly anyone, apart from the victims, sounded a protest.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still working through this very excellent response to Berman.

Again, there's a touch of tendentiousness about it, as I remarked in response to your reading of Berman's interpretation of Abraham & Tariq Ramadan's analysis of the story across religious communities.

I agree with the basic thrust of your responses, that Berman is to some extent careless in the way he reads these episodes to conform to a particular "take". At the same time, there are ways that he could sustain his analysis with relatively minor adjustments to his descriptions and his references.

For example, in the case of the Belgian Congo, there's a complicated interweaving between the systemic reasons for the conduct of Leopold's hirelings and those of the other chartered companies and some of the individual instances of murder and repression.

At the systemic level, you've got a particular form of organized banditry that interlocked with late industrial capitalism, a form which monopoly capitalists actually viewed with distaste. (Contrast the relative 'order', albeit still colonial and exploitative, of Lever's palm oil operations in the Congo, with the extraction of wild rubber.) You've also got at the systemic, institutional level, the idiosyncratically autocratic ambitions of Leopold up against the rather different systematizations of imperial rule followed by the national governments of England, France and Germany from 1890 to 1910.

At the local level, there's an interweaving of people acting with instrumental directness to extract rubber (and using all means, including mass murder, to achieve that end) and some Europeans who more or less behave like Conrad's Kurtz (Hochschild points out, accurately, that Kurtz is not nearly so symbolic or abstract a character as most literary critics have taken him to be, but a composite of quite real European individuals active in the Congo).

But in a way, just as in South-West Africa, some of what gets summarized as "genocide" in the Congo is quite different than what it would be in the Holocaust. Many of the deaths came from starvation or disease among refugees desperately fleeing forced labor. In either case, however, you have to question a bit the desire to somehow "wall off" the Holocaust as the singular manifestation of programmatic genocide in the 20th Century, as the defining episode of it. Both the Congo and the German murder of many Herero (including from depraved indifference to conditions in the camps) structurally resemble mass killings in Armenia, Rwanda, China, Cambodia, and so on--deaths that result in part from depraved and systematic indifference to suffering as a deliberate agenda of bureaucratically systematic genocide. But I think trying to split definitional hairs in this way is a mistake: there is a very strong "family resemblance" between these episodes and that resemblance includes the Holocaust.

What could help Berman a bit is if he was a bit clearer about the "fascist strain" he's trying to trace through different places and circumstances: that clarity in part has to come through a systematic and analytically "tight" attention to the way particular political ideologies in the 20th Century conceptualized a relation to the state. For all that Leopold's activities in the Congo might appear to be "capitalism run amok", there's some justification for seeing what he did as instead a kind of mutation of state power; certainly German policy towards the Herero looks that way.

I think Berman can make his argument work out with these and other examples. If it were me, I'd sweat the details more than he does, but there's still something legitimate in the way he's trying to trace a kind of loose lineage of totalitarian and illiberal postures or modalities across the 20th Century. I don't think your critique quite invalidates his project: it just modifies the intensity with which he declares it.

4/18/2006 04:22:00 PM  

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