Dalrymple 2009

Sayyid Qutb

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Theodore Dalrymple has another stunningly simple piece in City Journal this month.  His argument is simple and consequently does not stand up to scrutiny.  First he moves through a comparison between Communism and Islamism, conflating the two to as Lenin and Qutb, respectively.  They are similar because 1. they call for the abolition of the state, 2. they do not shy away from violence and finally they believe in vanguardism and not mass movements.  To say that theses differences make them the same, except the obvious different telos, is laughable (even if allowing the conflation of the two writers as emblematic of the two ideologies.)

He then spends some time to mark the ideological approaches offered as laughable for two reasons.  First, the preachers of the idological movements are privileged.

Avoiding material failure gives quite sufficient meaning to their [the struggling] lives.  By contrast, ideologists have few fears about finding their daily bread.  Their difficulty with life is less concrete.

Dalrymple then marks this academic-cum-liberator lifestyle as “the treason of the clerk”, a phrase coined in 1927 by Julien Benda.  If that argument has been floating around so long and still has not gained traction then maybe Dalrymple should investigate that instead.  His argument for dismissal of ideologists as privileged is actually the very argument advanced by Lenin, and maybe Qutb, for liberation.  By a vanguard.  Maybe Dalrymple is writing to an audience that does not have the background to dismiss this argument as easily turned and handled by the ideologists.

Dalrymple’s second argument is that ideology stands as a form of fetishistic disavowal, it serves as a token allowing the ideologists to avoid confrontation with what they are realyl upset about.  One can almost hear Dalrymple calling Qutb a homosexual in this passage.  Maybe there are larger questions at stake, more personal questions for individual activists, but that does nto change the veracity of their criticisms.  These are ad hominems.  Maybe if Dalrymple could show how the personal baggage affects the credibility of the theory, then there would be an argument.  Never mind the fetish is a Marxist form of interrogation to criticize the world as we know it.

Why then does Dalrymple go through these moves?  Surely he is not writing to dismiss Marxism and Islamism, as though the reader of City Journal needs such prodding.  Dalrymple then turns to environmentalism, claiming that it to is an ideology and ergo ought to be held under the same scrunities.  Except he, at no point, tries to show environmentalism as callign for 1. state dissolution or 2. violence or 3. vanguardism.  Dalrymple cannot even identify a voice that leads this new ideology.

The problem is that environmentalism is not an ideology, it is a platform.  It is a goal and a way of evaluating policies; it is not a cohesive story told to flatten out contradictions.  It rests upon a belief in purity, a belief shared by Islamism and modern day political conservatism.

This understanding is an easy one to make if someone believes, as Dalrymple does, that she is outside of ideology: that ideology is the space of an other, a marginal other.  Dalrymple’s other is a traumatized (impure) body, so all of us normal folk (pure) who enjoy buying things and selling our labor are immune to the vagaries of ideology.  Just the obverse, it is when ideology is most invisible that it works its magic on us the most.

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2 thoughts on “Dalrymple 2009

  1. The Javelineer

    You err at the outset in your analysis of Dalrymple’s piece. He compares the “unity of theory and praxis” between “Marxisim-Leninism” and “Qutb’s Islamism.” He’s not conflating Marxism-Leninism with all of Communism, nor does he conflate all of Islamism with Qutb’s ideology. He’s selecting them as examples.

    You’re quite right that Marxist-Leninists argued “for dismissal of ideologists as privileged.” Dalrymple doesn’t. Instead, he discusses how ideologies often run contrary to the very things that give them life.

    Today, people most frequently use the phrase [“the treason of the clerks”] to signify the allegiance that intellectuals gave to Communism, despite the evident fact that the establishment of Communist regimes led everywhere and always to a decrease in the kind of intellectual freedom and respect for individual rights that intellectuals claimed to defend.

    You claim environmentalism is not an ideology but only a goal and way of evaluating policies. Well, yes. All political movements have goals and policy prescriptions. Ideological movements are political movements distinguished by a desire to change man, to construct a “new man” as Mao put it. To achieve this

    Certainly environmentalism is an ideology. It aims to construct a certain notion of “purity” in which man’s actions are unnatural and every other action on the planet is natural. It then defines “purity” as what is natural, or not of man’s actions. The next move is to constrain individual freedom to limit the unnatural. And so the totalitarian move is made.

    You may be suffering from the very ideological view from nowhere of which you accuse Dalrymple.

    1. tneal Post author

      You are correct that Dalrymple did not conflate all Islam and all Communisms with Qutb and Lenin. However, Dalrymple chose those examples to make an ad hominem attack against environmentalists: “they’re ideologues just like Leninists and Qutbs.” In the end, however, all of this is irrelevant. Dalrymple’s real gripe is in the last paragraph where he takes issue with some environmental reforms. Fair enough, I have no problem with his disagreement. The problem with his argument is that it is a long developed name calling session. I make it clear that ideology is not a four letter word, we are all ideologues. That should sufficiently deal with your last charge.

      If you would like to argue about the definition of ideology then so be it. But that debate is not productive and it is tired. Like the Dalrymple piece your comment has staked out ground that is not at all the issue. He makes a passing criticism at the end and your main issue is also a passing comment. Yes, the next move of the ideologues is to constrain individual freedom but why is freedom intrinsically good? Sometimes negative externalities necessitate constraints on freedom. I will support some regulations in service of the environment and I will not support others. Never will my support be about “naturalness” or “purity” and never will the lack of support be about “what about my freedom?!”

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