Is It Happening Here?

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.