Is It Happening Here?

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Many
years ago, when I was the agriculture and county government reporter
for The Herald-Journal
in Logan, Utah, a Somali acquaintance of mine — we both regularly
attended the tiny Logan
Islamic Center
— sat me down one morning and decided to explain
to me the why’s and wherefore’s of his country’s collapse into civil
war in the early 1990s.

I
wish I could remember his name. He was one of several Somali students
working on advanced degrees in either agricultural engineering or
irrigation at Utah State University.
I knew a thing or two about Somalia, having worked as a reporter
in Dubai the year before (1995). In that tiny Gulf state, I acquired
a few Somali acquaintances who taught me that despite the civil
war and the collapse of the central government in Mogadishu, there
was still a brisk trade between the Gulf and Somalia, and every
now and then I’d sit at the boat launches along Dubai creek and
watch the dhows from Somalia unload their cargoes of livestock (goats
or sheep) or fish and load up with goods no one else was willing
to ship to the Horn of Africa at that time — auto parts, gasoline
and lubricants, air conditioners, power generators, household goods
and kitchen appliances.

I
do remember it was a bright morning, and we sat in the sunlight
in that little mosque he revealed his take on his country’s recent
history. Beginning in 1969, Somalia was ruled by a dictator, Mohammed
Siad Barre
, a sometime client of the Soviet Union and a sometime
friend of Washington, depending on who ruled Ethiopia at the time
and who he could get the most money and greatest amount of political
and military support from.

It
never really mattered who the patron of the moment was, because
Siad Barre’s ruling method never changed. He created as strong a
cult of personality as he could and as brutal a police state as
possible, given Somalia’s meager resources. But more importantly,
my friend told me, he made sure that there simply was no "public
space" not somehow connected to the state, no voluntary organizations
or ways of doing things — no matter how old or traditional — that
were not approved, monitored and funded by the state and, by implication,
Siad Barre.

In
short, he said, no one could form so much as a bowling league without
the party/leader state’s stamp of approval and constant monitoring,
lest the frivolities somehow become a conduit for anti-state activities.
Anyone who tried was at best threatened and the organization broken
up. At worst, they were killed.

The
only institution which Siad Barre couldn’t integrate into the party/leader
state were Somalia’s extensive clans (he was able to only partially
co-opt the country’s Islamic institutions). But he could force himself
in-between the clans and make sure they couldn’t work with each
other outside the confines of the party/leader state. And he could
make sure that clans had to compete with each other for party/leader
state resources and attention.

My
friend told me that several things forced the eventual uprising.
First, as the Cold War ground to a halt, the Horn of Africa simply
no longer mattered, so no one was willing to do anything to help
poor Siad Barre hold on to power. (Remember, there was a time when
it did, when Moscow happily supplied Somalia with weapons and advisers
to battle the pro-Western government of Halie Selassie, and then
Washington came to Mogadishu’s aid to fight Ethiopian and Cuban
troops after the Dergue seized power in Addis Abbaba in a 1975 coup;
it was an era when people like Paul Wolfowitz lost sleep over the
big Soviet navy base on the Yemeni island of Socotra, off the Somali
coast.) Without the outside guarantee of survival, Siad Barre was
on his own.

Second,
my friend also said that Somalis increasingly concluded that if
simply wanting to start a sports club, Qur’an study group, or agricultural
improvement organization without government approval and help meant
the state treated you as an enemy, then you might as well make being
an enemy of the state count. And so Somalis who felt they had no
choice joined the rebellion against Siad Barre. It grew and, as
things like this usually do, succeeded in ousting the dictator and
destroying his state.

A
few years later, as I slogged through my MA
in Arab Studies
at Georgetown, I learned this was actually an
established and somewhat well-understood political phenomenon. And
it’s widely practiced in the Middle East — Libya is a great example
of a party/leader state, but Saddam’s Iraq (and likely the Iraq
currently evolving out of the collapse of the Iraqi wing of the
Ba’ath Party) and Ba’ath Syria are also exceptional examples of
what happens when every type of collective social activity has to
be plugged into and through the state.

(This
led eventually to many discussions of what kind of chaos will engulf
places like Libya and Iraq when their leaders, ruling parties, and
states are destroyed. Not whether or not there would be chaos, but
what kind of chaos.)

Now,
when pointy-headed types talk about things like bowling leagues,
prayer circles and mutual agricultural improvement associations,
they call it "civil society." (When I think of "civil
society," I tend to think of overweight Midwestern salesmen-types
in funny hats raising money for cataract surgeries or new bandstands
in the municipal park, and I rather doubt this is what George
Soros
means when he says "civil society.") But the
idea (mine, anyway, I won’t pretend to speak for Soros) is that
there are "social spaces" where people can work together
absent the involvement of the state. Absent the approval of the
state. Absent the need for the state.

It’s
how most human being have lived, worked, worshiped and traded for
most of the last 10,000 years.

Now,
why bring all this up?

I
was riding
my bicycle to work
the other morning, contemplating, as I usually do, the events of
the day. I was trying to make sense of the Bush Administration’s
many seemingly disconnected initiatives — faith-based initiatives,
no child left behind, social-security "reform," the so-called
ownership society — and trying to figure out how they all made sense
together.

And
that’s when I remembered Somalia.

All
of the Bush Administration’s varied ideas and programs make sense
if you understand that they route large portions of the US economy
through something that is beginning to look a lot like a party/leader
state. At first glance, it all seems so convenient. The banks and
the government work together to help people buy homes! How nice!
It’s win-win. People get homes of "their own," banks get
guaranteed business, jobs get created. And what better way to ensure
proper ideological control and political loyalty of the country’s
schools, churches and big businesses by hooking them up to large
intravenous bags of unearned federal cash?

Now,
to be fair, there’s already nearly 100 years of federal intervention
in the economy to build on, from small business loans to the 30-year
mortgage (federal support for the banking system) to social security
itself and aid to college students and universities. We live in
an America where it’s already very difficult to conduct business
without somehow having the federal government (or even state and
local governments) involved. But it is still possible if you work
hard enough. And can work with others who share your views.

If
you think this looks like welfare, well, it is, but not quite the
way you think. The federal government, as part of the "ownership
society," may back low-interest loans and reduced down payments
for folks to buy houses, but do you think there will be any federal
help for borrowers if time get tough and people can no longer make
their mortgage payments? Not on your life. No more than there is
federal support for college grads who default on their student loans.
But all the loans will be guaranteed by the government — regardless
of whether borrowers can repay or not — ensuring continued "profitability"
for banks willing to share some of that gain with the party/leader
state in the form of political donations and support.

And
to its everlasting shame, American "capitalism" has almost
always been willing to sell itself for a government handout, a government
contract, a government subsidy, a loan guarantee. (That’s the American
System!) It will continue to do so, because too many businessmen
would rather have, as part of what George F. Will (in one of his
more lucid moments) aptly said, "socialized risk and privatized
profits." Why actually work for something when Uncle Sugar
is willing to tax and borrow to boost the bottom line?

I’ve
long wondered what tyranny in US would look like. We’re not there
yet, despite the constant hyperventilating of some to the contrary.
The Bush Administration rather sits atop the state in much the same
way Napoleon III sat atop his — more potential tyrant than kinetic.
Team Bush lacks the imagination and nerve necessary for real tyranny.
It views the state merely as a thing to loot, to hand over to one’s
friends in great big sloppy globs because there are no real consequences
attached. It is something you trash in a drunken, drug-ridden spree
and laugh about the hazy half-memories the morning after. And nothing
more. Because the bills are always paid by someone else.

But
I truly believe that tyranny is coming, and that we will indeed
be a fortunate people if it passes us by without paying us a visit.
Somewhere, people with real imagination and the desire to run the
state are lurking, waiting for the opportunity, for their moment
to come. All the laws are written, the machinery is in place, the
paramilitary police are ready to take orders, the civil service
ready to count beans and work efficiently and accomplish many great
things. It won’t be a mass tyranny of parties and rallies and militias
and uniforms. It won’t be a tyranny most raised on fear of fascism
will recognize. Most Americans won’t even feel the heel of the boot
when it starts marching (because that’s how tyranny works). They
are as free as the want to be, free to wave to flag, to love the
government, to support the troops, to pray for the President and
thank God for America. That "freedom" won’t change.

But
it will be tyranny. I can imagine an America, in the not-too-distant
future, where it will be virtually impossible, and likely even criminal,
to get a home loan, rent an apartment, to attend school, start a
business, get a job or possibly even form a bowling league without
first getting some kind of government approval. I can see an America
where it is impossible to engage in any kind of unsupervised, voluntary
cooperation with anyone. I can see an American tyranny that would,
in effect, require what amounts to a security clearance for all
kinds of things — to buy a car, borrow money, get a master’s degree
or PhD to getting certain kinds of "public sector" or
"private sector" (when we start talking "sectors,"
then we are really only talking about types of government, rather
than state and non-state) jobs. No need to randomly arrest folks
for badmouthing the leader or saying naughty things about the government.
Just put it in the record, and make them ineligible to refinance
their mortgage at the favorable terms given to loyal supporters
of the leader! Put a black mark on their employment record, ensuring
they will be the first fired and never hired once the economy "picks
up."

And
if they need a handout after being fired from their jobs? Why, make
sure they can only get charity from a proper, state-sanctioned church
and only after signing a loyalty oath. A man must, after all, eat.

A
friend cautioned me on this, saying I ought to be careful when applying
a Middle East model to our society. True, there are many significant
cultural and historical differences. But all men are sinners and
have fallen short of the glory of God. Wealth, culture and history
do not insulate a people from foolishness. Or the consequences of
their actions.

Okay,
I admit: I am a pessimist. We may avoid this fate, the fate of so
many societies run by tyrants who seek to aggrandize and create
the unending dictatorship, and instead simply muddle through. I
surely hope so. (That’s not so bad, because it is what people have
done for most of the last 10,000 years.) But most days, I am inclined
to doubt it. We are likely in for a future of war, privation and
no small amount of suffering. Followed by chaos. If, however, Somalia
shows what lengths a tyrant is willing to use the state, it also
shows that once people decide to fight the state, it will eventually
lose. No tyranny is forever. And that, no matter what happens, is
reason to hope.

September
22, 2004

Charles
H. Featherstone [send
him mail
] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing
in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer
in Alexandria, Virginia.

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