So Consider Phlebas II: Can't Leave Well Enough Alone, Research Time, 24/06/2015

Continued from last post . . . It might sound paradoxical or contradictory at first to talk about the imperial tendency of liberalism. How could a moral and political philosophy whose primary imperative is leaving people alone to do what they want also encourage imperial behaviour?

Well, one answer to that question is in Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, particularly an appendix at the end of the novel that describes, in a few pages, the fundamentals of the galaxy-spanning war that provides the novel’s setting. It’s a war between two galactic powers, The Culture and the Idiran Empire, which both exist somewhere between Type II and Type III of the Kardashev Scale.

Banks really is good at creating freaky images. He didn't
draw this; he just described an Idiran. The fan art did
the rest.
The Idirans are a species of 12-foot-tall tripedal religious fundamentalists, whose most ideologically extreme members hold all other species as mere animals. Their empire is a theocracy, with a mission of universally expanding its religion to all intelligent species in existence, and it uses military conquest for its missionary task.

The Culture is the liberal utopia that I described yesterday, and you’d think their civilization was a recipe for insularity and indifference to the wider world. Every organic member of The Culture can pursue their interests and dreams to the fullest degree as long as they don’t harm the pursuits or life of another. The advanced machine intelligences who manage The Culture maintain the universal material abundance that make such a life possible. You’d think they’d maintain a defensive war at best, fending off the attacks of the Idiran regime. 

But Banks has thought through how a liberal paradise would act, given its existence in a galactic society of non-liberal civilizations like authoritarian or theocratic regimes. These others are societies where individuals don’t have the freedom to pursue their own goods, desires, dreams, and ambitions in life. These societies prescribe what kind of lives its members should lead.

As far as a liberal is concerned, a society that uses some organization of authority to impose a particular mission on the personal lives of its members, is oppressive. Its people would be better off if they were free. In other words, if they joined The Culture or changed their own societies to put themselves on a path more like The Culture.

This is the paradox of liberalism’s imperial drive that I want to explore in Utopias. In the name of creating universal access to a society where each individual is left alone to live as they wish, a liberal political power inevitably refuses to leave its non-liberal neighbours alone. 

In Banks’ science-fictional universe, the Idirans fail to understand that The Culture has an expansionist drive just as fanatical as their own. The Culture’s society lacks ideological unity at the individual level – everyone pursues their own desires in life, believes generally what they want to believe, and is only limited by the rights of all their fellows to pursue their desires as well. But its premise is the belief that everyone should be free in this sense.

He genuinely believes that people everywhere in the
world should be free, and the scary thing is that this
belief is good, and can encourage good work.
I remember . . . Among the justifications of W’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the one that stuck around the longest, that held out after the claims of Iraq’s links with al Qaeda and WMD development were proven utterly false, was that the United States would bring freedom and democracy to Iraq. It was the justification that had gestated in American politics for the longest time, the strategy of the think tank Project for a New American Century to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. The heart of a liberal democrat yearns for all individuals to be free to pursue their own hopes and dreams. The job of the United States, as leader of the free world, is to export freedom.

At the end of the Second World War, progressive people around the world believed in the United States as the liberator of people, a leading force for freedom. When I read the essays and books of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, they speak lovingly of America’s role in the world, bringing peace and freedom to all humanity. They had good reason to think this way: the United States was a liberal democracy that had just destroyed two totalitarian military states with genuine designs on world conquest.

The Vietnam War and the CIA-facilitated military coups and civil wars across Latin America shattered that faith in almost everyone. Except, for one significant example, the United States’ neo-conservative movement, which founded a think tank whose purpose was to make a case to export liberal democracy and secular individual freedom around the world by the barrel of a gun.

Banks seems to have understood this in 1987, and long before, because Consider Phlebas had existed in draft form since before his first published novel, from at least the early 1980s. When a society’s highest value is individual freedom, they can’t leave the unfree alone.

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