COVER STORY: The left's paranoid creed of "world purificationism"
by Mervyn F. Bendle
News Weekly, September 1, 2012
Beware the purifiers, those fanatics who are committed absolutely to the purification of the world, at whatever human cost. Such is the urgent message of scholars and commentators who have been watching carefully the resurgence of a massively destructive but very seductive extremist ideology — revolutionary millennarianism.
It is a quasi-religious creed that seeks an earthly paradise, a new truth, a new humanity, and a new civilisation that is miraculously pure, militantly equal, free from want or greed, and now, ecologically sustainable. This utopian ideology has deep historical roots, and has driven most revolutionary and terrorist movements since the French Revolution.
The groundbreaking studies of this phenomenon were The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn (1970), and The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, by J.L. Talmon (1970), while the approaching new millennium saw the publication of other important works, including, Eugen Weber, Apocalypses (1999), David S. Katz and Richard H. Popkin, Messianic Revolution (1998), and Frederic J. Baumgartner, Longing for the End (1999). Millennarianism is also a vital component of many terrorist movements, and this has been explored by such eminent authors as Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It (1999), and Luciano Pellicani, Revolutionary Apocalypse: Ideological Roots of Terrorism (2003).
More recently, a lucid analysis has been provided by the American professor, Ernest Sternberg, in “Purifying the world: What the new radical ideology stands for”, in Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (Vol.54, Issue 1, 2010).
As Sternberg points out: “We are in the midst of the worldwide rise of a non-religious chiliastic movement, which preaches global human renewal and predicts apocalypse as its alternative. Like its twentieth-century predecessors, the new ideology provides an intellectual formula through which to identify the present world’s depredations, imagines a pure new world that eliminates them, and mobilises the disaffected and alienated for the sake of radical change.”
At the level of academic theory the main tendencies within this millennarian ideological synthesis include eco-apocalypticism, deep ecology, anarchism, postmodernism, radical feminism, queer theory, postcolonial theory, various forms of critical theory and anti-Americanism.
Also influential is the neo-Marxist “autonomist” theory expounded by the convicted Italian terrorist, Antonio Negri, and the American academic, Michael Hardt, in Empire (2000). However, it is a great strength of Sternberg’s article that he has also analysed a mass of non-theoretical material, including websites, manifestoes, declarations and programs generated at the grassroots level and is able to present a coherent synthesis of their principal elements.
As Sternberg observes, after the collapse of the Soviet Union there emerged the hope that the world would enter the 21st century with the totalitarian horrors of communism, fascism and Nazism behind us. As the 9/11 attacks demonstrated, we hoped in vain, and instead we have witnessed the birth of a new array of Islamist, leftist and environmentalist groups determined to destroy the West, which is portrayed as the home of “Empire”, a diabolical force for evil. This allegedly genocidal entity is “humanity’s enemy [and] the cause of all suffering”, and it is epitomised by America and Israel, and their “lackey states”, such as Australia.
It is a deeply paranoid vision, according to which Empire “exercises domination through corporate tentacles, media manipulation, state power, and military prowess. It is selfish, greedy, ruthless, racist, and exploitative, and heedlessly pollutes the earth. It imposes its media-saturated culture, dehumanising technologies, and exploitative production systems on subject peoples” around the globe. “Controlled by U.S. militarism and multinational corporations, in cahoots with Zionism, Empire contaminates environments and destroys cultures … by means of economic liberalism, militarism, multinational corporations, corporate media, and technologies of surveillance.”
Millennarian militants see themselves as the revolutionary vanguard leading a vast coalition of social movements, consisting of “the angry, the disaffected, the oppressed, the depressed, the discontented and the offended … in a cataclysmic struggle against … Empire”.
They are convinced “its defeat will bring about a new era of social justice and sustainable development, in which the diverse cultures harmoniously share the earth”. In this paradise, “multiple cultures will flourish … persons of diverse ethnic communities, conditions of ability or disability, and gender and transgender statuses will live with each other in harmony and mutual appreciation. Varied views will be expected and welcome, as long as they stand in opposition to Empire. All religions will be welcome as long as they celebrate other religions”.
The elderly, the very ill, the imperfectly born and the otherwise physically inconvenient will be euthanased. Every form of sexual difference will be celebrated. All self-identified cultural communities will be protected from any criticism levelled at them and any form of disruptive ideological dissent will be repressed.
Above all, paradise will be environmentally responsible and have a small carbon footprint. It “will run on alternative energy, organic farming, local food markets, and closed-loop recyclable industry, if any industry is needed. People will travel on public transit, or … ride bicycles. They will occupy green buildings constructed of local materials and inhabit cities growing organically within bioregions. Life will be liberated from carbon emanations. It will be a permanent, placid way of life, in which economies are integrated into the earth’s ecosystem.”
Because the only obstacle to realising this utopia is Empire, led by America, opposition to them trumps all other allegiances, personal, political or ethical. Consequently, leftists are “willing to deny documented genocide against the Bosnians, avert their faces from genocide in Sudan, spread the theories of Jewish-Zionist world conspiracy, ignore massive human rights abuses in the Third World, and excuse even the most brutal theocratic-fascist regime”, as long as such atrocities are perpetrated by regimes that purport to oppose America and the nefarious Empire it allegedly leads.
By contrast, all opponents and critics of this program must be attacked mercilessly as toxic enemies of all that is good, true, and pure in the world.
In Australia, the most prominent vehicle for this form of extremism is the Greens, a political party that is only just beginning to receive the critical attention it requires now that its extremist policies are being implemented by the federal government.
Behind the Greens, however, is a complex network of radical political, intellectual, academic and cultural alliances that date back some four decades to the eclipse of the Stalinist left in Australia and its replacement by a coalition dominated by the New Left, radical environmentalism, Islamists, anti-Semitic groups and various lifestyle-based social movements.
Sternberg points out that an important obstacle preventing a broader public recognition of the existence and influence of this new extremist dogma is its lack of an agreed-upon name. As he observes, the movement itself prefers such labels as global resistance, global intifada, eco-socialism, post-democracy, anti-globalisation, no-borders, transnational activism and the Green Left, as we have in Australia.
Other observers have suggested new nihilism, left-fascism, red fascism, green fascism, and the red-brown-green coalition, with the green referring to both radical environmentalism and Islamism (black may be added to refer to anarchism). The Zombie Left and New Barbarism have also been suggested as appropriate names. Sternberg himself prefers to use the term “world purificationism”, because it best expresses the movement’s fanatical desire to purify the world of the innumerable “toxic” evils (mainly human and technological) against which it rages.
In his view, purificationism “is just now emerging from the post-communist ideological swamp. It seems to be at the turning point when activists have graduated from fringe gatherings of the alienated. They lead hundreds of activist groups and NGOs, conduct seminars and hold marches at international conferences, receive support from governments and [charitable] institutions, enjoy various despots as their cheerleaders, are woven into the workings of the UN and the EU”, and have a loyal following of millions around the globe.
Despite its ecological and multicultural preoccupations, this movement displays traditional totalitarian tendencies, and Sternberg spends some time exploring the most prominent theories of totalitarianism, including Hannah Arendt and Emilio Gentile.
One scholar he finds most helpful is Pellicani, whose Revolutionary Apocalypse describes the rise of the militant revolutionary, the lethal believer who “craves the Absolute” and embraces apocalyptic acts and total revolution as the means to achieve it. “Incapable of accepting reality he aspires to build a completely new world [and] not a single stone of the corrupt and corrupting world shall remain standing.”
Over the past century this cadre has driven a global political campaign, executed with “an overwhelming chiliastic passion, to overthrow the existing order in order to establish an absolutely and abstractly pure world”. In this pursuit of racial, class (and now ecological) purification the revolutionary vanguard mobilises the “alienated intellectuals who enjoyed the special privilege that modernity had provided, that of working professionally and without restriction in the realm of ideas”.
Thus empowered “with a theoretical apparatus and accompanying jargon unavailable to other men”, these apocalyptic activists purport to possess “an arcane and speculative knowledge of history’s dynamic that … illuminates the road toward the transfigured society” that they wish so fervently to impose upon humanity.
It may be difficult for Australians, who are generally easy-going and suspicious of all forms of extremism, to comprehend the fervour with which such fanatics wish to pursue this program of purification, or grasp the influence this chiliastic ideology presently wields, especially amongst academics, the intelligentsia, the media, leftist politicians, social movement activists and NGOs.
Tragically, the apocalyptic worldview and the destructive policies that flow from it are embedded in our schools’ curricula, and, as Sternberg laments, many impressionable young people “are already seduced and another generation thrills to the romance of world transformation”.
What is to be done? At the very least this millennarian message must be challenged at the political and intellectual levels. In particular, we cannot afford the luxury of an apocalyptic adversary culture being nurtured within our universities, schools, and amongst community groups and NGOs, and therefore the numerous sources of state funding used to support its organisational and propaganda infrastructure must be examined to determine what public benefits flow from promoting a totalitarian and apocalyptic view of the future.
Humanity faces massive challenges and we need sensible, practical policies, not extremist strategies based on the insistence that the world’s about to end.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University, Queensland. His many articles include “9/11 and the intelligentsia, ten years on”, Quadrant, September 2011, and “How civilisations die”, Quadrant, April 2012.