The great shift of our time is the collapse of the dream that politicians could change the world for the better, Adam Curtis says:
A dream that was replaced by a conviction that politicians were untrustworthy and always become corrupted by power.
The collapse of that optimistic vision of what politics could achieve then left the way open for powerful, reactionary forces to take power who don’t want to change the world. Instead they want to manage the world and hold it stable — backed up by the threat of violence. A threat to which they have become increasingly addicted.
This has happened not only in America and in Britain — but all over the world. And I want to tell the story of how it happened in the Middle East. It is the intertwined story of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza strip and the reactionary right-wing nationalist groups in Israel.
All three groups are driven by an angry, pessimistic vision of the world, of human nature — and the inability of politicians to transform things for the better. It’s a fascinating story because it shows how the underlying similarities led those groups to become tightly locked together — helping each other cement their ruthless grip on their people — and freeze out any progressive alternatives.
Israel started as a utopian project, based in part on Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel, Altneuland (Old New Land):
Starting in the 1930s, the Israelis set out to try and build in Palestine the new kind of Zionist society that Theodor Herzl had laid out in his novel Altneuland — Old New Land. The new capital was called Tel Aviv — which was the Hebrew title given to Herzl’s novel by it’s translator. It roughly means “a new spring coming from an old mound”.
The new city was constructed as a grand experiment in town planning. It was based on plans drawn up by the Scottish town planner, Patrick Geddes. His ideas about how cities could be planned came from the same utopian traditions as Herzl’s belief in a socialist planned society. What linked them was the technocratic belief that flourished in the 1930s — and again in the 1950s — that you could shape the environment around human beings as a total system that would make them stronger, more confident and morally better human beings.
Many of the architects who actually designed it had been trained in the 1930s at the Bauhaus school and were deeply influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier.
Later, Eichmann’s trial — or, rather, Hannah Arendt’s writing about it — challenged the prevailing utopianism:
In 1963 a political philosopher called Hannah Arendt who had attended the Eichmann trial published a series of articles in the New Yorker. In them she challenged the idea put forward by the Israeli prosecutors that Eichmann was a special kind of evil human being. Arendt argued that he was the very opposite — that he was “terrifyingly normal”. That far from being a demonic monster he was actually a bland, mindless and extremely efficient bureaucrat. He was motivated, she said by personal ambition and that he wasn’t even particularly anti-semitic.
Arendt called it “the banality of evil”.
“evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer.
However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic.
Evil can spread over the whole world like a fungus and lay waste precisely because it is not rooted anywhere. It was the most banal motives, not especially wicked ones which made Eichmann such a frightful evil-doer.”
Arendt’s reports caused an outrage. The journalist Norman Podhoretz wrote that Arendt’s picture of Eichmann -
“violates everything we know about the Nature of Man.”
And that went to the heart of it. Because what Arendt was implying was that human beings might not be changeable or perfectible. That anyone could do really evil, horrible things any time depending on the circumstances they found themselves in. And what was worse — that the modern world of intricate bureaucracies and bland management might make it more possible.
It was a pretty pessimistic and conservative view of human beings — and it challenged the idea that you could change the world for the better. And this dark frightening idea, born out of the horrors of twenty years before, began to worm its way into the post war optimism not just in Israel but a whole generation of liberals in Europe and America.
The progressive utopianism of Arab Nationalism also faltered, and when the Islamists began to rise to power, the Israelis saw them as a useful ally against their secular-Arab enemies — but no one seemed to notice:
Bit by bit through the 1980s, with the tacit encouragement of the Israelis, Sheikh Yassin built the structure of an alternative Islamist society in Gaza. All this went unrecorded — I have searched the archives and can find nothing, all the TV reports from Palestine and Israel focus on Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Even when Hamas is formed in 1987 during the first Intifada there is nothing. The first news item about Hamas isn’t until December 1992 — when they kidnap an Israeli border guard.