A Calculus of Covenants; or, Fifth Generation Warfare
by Adam Katz (May 2007)
Part of the appeal of “realist” foreign policy prescriptions must lie in their promise to restore a status quo ante that has been “disrupted” by some avoidable “mistake” on our part. If there are rules to the realist game of argumentation, the first move they would dictate would be to find that mistake in some deviation from the most widely accepted and documented “consensus” available; the second move would be to call for the convocation of all those parties most likely to re-affirm that consensus, finding some scapegoat to organize the conference around. The disruption of the consensus can then be traced back, as narrowly as possible, to a single offending action (and actor) and undone by designating that party’s punishment or penance; in which case the conference serves as a ritual of purification, closing up some hole or breach in reality, rather like running a film backwards. It is true, realism was once something more than that; or, perhaps, that was usually enough in a world organized around self-interested and broadly culturally compatible leading states and their satellites; today, though, there is not a single consensus or even deal we can imagine brokering among the international diplomatic class that wouldn’t be vulnerable to a well-placed bomb or manufactured outrage about cartoons.
Still the realist tendency is one more widely shared, and perhaps clung to especially in times of crisis: in general, it is a good practice, whether in politics, science or everyday interaction, to hold as much of reality constant as we can while we work on some particular part of it we are most interested in at the moment: letting “all other things be equal,” as we often say when we try to focus on the main principle at stake. My own discussion here will simply ask that the reader accept that sometimes, even very seldom, this approach is not only wrong but exceedingly dangerous; that these times will be those when there is no way to “equalize” “all other things” because other things have become incommensurable with each other; and, finally, that now might very well be such a time. If the reader can entertain such a perspective, at least for the duration of reading (and thinking about) this essay, then what we might gain is not a license to reject the commitment to measuring our thinking and actions against reality, but some insight into the constitution of (human, social) reality itself. Because if there is a sense in which reality has been lost, we are confronted with an ethical and political far more than epistemological problem: our most minimal obligation today would be to restore a common reality.
I will propose that we have the following three ways of constituting reality. First of all, through repetition: I recognize something as “real,” measure its reality insofar as it conforms to some past event. This is the form of preservative reality provided to us by tradition and routine. Second, there is the establishment of reality through domination: something is recognizable to the extent that it corresponds to my own will. Much of our understanding of cause and effect (in which the cause “dominates” the effect) derives from this mode; so does our understanding of work and technology, in which we “force” nature to coincide with our will; and so, of course, does political tyranny, which offers a stabilization of reality. And, third, through reciprocity. Here, reality is given in the tangible results of the common actions of two or more individuals, and these tangible results are in turn “available” in conditions created for future common actions. “Promises” are a perfect example here, in which we create a common world through our ability to refer to my commitment to perform some act that you will recognize as a fulfillment of my promise.
Repetition and force will always enter into the constitution of reality—we couldn’t evade the notion of cause and effect that follows from my awareness of the transformations I can effect and measure even if we wanted to; nor, needless to say, could we completely eschew any reference to past events in making sense of present ones. If these modes of constituting reality overflow their proper domains, though, they ultimately de-realize: the common proverb that if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail speaks to the excesses of domination, while Santayana’s definition of the fanatic as one who redoubles his efforts once he has forgotten his aims points to the limits of repetition. The only thing that can keep these modes of constituting reality within their proper boundaries, though, is our third mode: only through reciprocity can we set the necessary limits. But the problem we always face is that, while we are “within” those other modes, reciprocity can only appear as threatening to “stability,” as it renders cause and effect, command and control, ritual and habit, extremely problematic. Finally, it seems, especially when we inhabit those other modes, that reciprocity can be dispensed with: with repetition and domination, we can build, we can possess, we can preserve what we have produced—why risk it all, and in the name of what?
These objections would be unanswerable, except for a small, negligible minority of lovers of freedom for its own sake, if it were not for the fact that repetition and domination themselves ultimately depend upon reciprocity. The immense value of Eric Gans’ originary hypothesis of the origin of language reveals itself here. For those unfamiliar with my previous discussions of Gans’ hypothesis in this journal, Gans proposes that the first sign emerges on what he calls the originary scene, in the midst of the originary event. We reduce our presuppositions regarding the advanced hominid who must have been our immediate predecessor to a minimum: such a hominid would have been distinguished from other species by its more advanced mimetic capacities. At some point, an intensely desirable object is brought into the group: one member after another reaches for it. Added to the sheer appetitive attraction of the object is each member intensifying his movement toward the central object in escalating rivalry with each other member. The animal hierarchy, based upon the dominance of the “alpha” animal, breaks down in the common rush toward the center. In this scene, which threatens the destruction of the group in a convulsion of violence, one member emits what Gans calls the “aborted gesture of appropriation.” This gesture, imitated in turn by the rest of the group, arrests the propulsion toward the center and establishes the first human community, organized around the first sacred object, the object of desire itself, to which is attributed the power to repel appropriative action. Thus is born the human species, defined as the species which poses a greater threat to its own existence than any other external threat and who has invented representation as the deferral of violence.
In this originary event, we can see both why reciprocity is necessary for the constitution of any human reality and why these modes would be viewed suspiciously by those (which is to say, all of us, sometimes) inhabiting the other modes. The aborted gesture can only work if it is imitated by others: it creates the first “virtual reality,” a reality which is sustained by nothing more than our commitment to sustain it. Even worse, my own commitment to sustain must rest upon my reliance upon the other’s unprovable commitment to do the same. This is all enormously disruptive to the capacity for repetition and domination which links us to the animal kingdom, and, indeed, to nature in general. And it is equally disruptive each time it recurs, because the scene is originary not merely because it comes first, but because it provides an untranscendable and infinitely generative model for the deferral of violence, still and always the main task of representation as we will always be mimetic beings. Even more, each new mode of deferral (the “big man” of the tribal community, the monotheistic God, the modern individual, free government and marketplace) by enhancing our freedom and hence opportunities for reciprocity simultaneously produces new grounds for mimetic rivalry, envy and resentment. We are always on that originary scene, tasked with the obligation to discover or invent the gesture that will defer our headlong rush into our self-annihilation as a species.
So, the only way to restore a “broken” reality is through some kind of “contagious” gesture of reciprocity; by the same token, though, the emergence and compelling character of such a gesture (which, we must remember is probably likely to fail, as was likely the case with our originary scene, many, many times before it “takes”) is the surest sign of the depths of the crisis. The temptation will be overwhelming to deny the crisis by taking the sign for the cause and scapegoating precisely those who stand between all of us and our being engulfed. If only they would stop pointing to all the symptoms of the crisis we would be perfectly fine!
The Left—what I have called the “Global Intifada”—is at war with such reciprocally constituted, what we might term “pledged,” realities. For the Global Intifada, pledged realities are nothing more than pseudo-agreements among the powerful (those who have something to lose and therefore something to pledge), pseudo because they “always already agree” on the fundamental point of preserving their power; such pledges are, further, deceptions aimed at dispossessing the already dispossessed of their only possession, which is the knowledge that they have nothing to lose but their chains; and, finally, they are attempts to de-stabilize the cultic rituals which have been built to consecrate and preserve the victim status of those “targeted” by the pledged reality. Note how committed the Global Intifada itself is to a certain, hard and fast notion of reality—the postmodern relativism of the Left applies to disputable values and claims to objective observation, not to the “testimony” of those who have been victimized and the all important cadre of those who solicit, record convey, interpret and translate into policies and institutions that testimony. That reality is defended fiercely, in special prosecutorial style, gathering all of the consequences of the actions of powerful agents and treating them all as if the agent were equally liable for even the most remote of them; posing questions to such powerful agents aimed at eliciting inconsistencies (“perjury traps”), constant repetition of any “fact” that has been written into the “record” (of the liberal global media, Human rights Groups, etc.) regardless of later exposures (which are, in turn, demonized, along with alternative outlets producing them, as the work of “partisan hacks”). The perceived power to create such realities and the desperate need to do so are both evident in the recent decision by the EU to render statements regarding “Islamic” terrorism “false’ by diktat; and the corresponding erasure of the term “War on Terror” by the Democrats from the new military budget. The “War on “terror,” you see, is a “partisan” phrase; there are only specific military actions in Iraq, specific naval movements in the Persian Gulf, specific troop transfers to Africa, etc. Anything that doesn’t provide evidence of the ongoing crime against humanity that is Western civilization is reduced to the barest, most positivist, statement of facts—it is here, in fact, where the Global Intifada finds a presumably unlikely ally in the senile “realists.”
Given this fanatical construction of a “progressive” reality it seems to me that there is something naïve in theories of “4th generation warfare.” The argument for applying this term to our current, "asymmetrical,” conflict lies in the assertion that the real target of guerilla and terrorist operations is public opinion in the “occupying” country. So far, so good. Still, there seems to me something missing in accounts of this “target.” Take the following, rather typical formulation (taken from the Department of Defense website):
If one accepts that the pen is mightier than the sword, then the
picture is worth 1,000 words. It follows that the video tape must
surely be worth 10,000 words, and interactive multi-media could
be considered priceless. The shock of seeing a HMMWV filled with
American soldiers being blown up by a command detonated explosive
before our eyes is psychologically and sociologically traumatic.
In addition to such images being used as recruiting venues for the
Muslim extremists, these images serve as information arrows directed
at the hearts of the American public. Nightly viewing of the carnage
of blown up HMMWVs and wounded and killed American soldiers will
eventually affect the collective psyche of the American public in this
war, just as it did in
this is exactly the enemy’s . Moreover, Vietnam
strategy. They intend to defeat us not with bullets but with
images until we get tired of the war and withdraw – leaving them
the victors. While we Americans dominate the physical war, our own
practice of information warfare against these enemies is sadly lacking.
To start at the end, our “practice of information warfare against these enemies” will be “lacking” as long as we take for granted that the American public’s experience of war is inevitably one describable in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It may very well be that if there had been TV during the Civil War or World War II we could not have sustained public support for even those conflicts, which is to say that the “images” in question automatically disable us. I doubt it, though—if there had been TV during the Civil War we would have 60 Minutes exposés of the slave quarters on many a plantation, and in World War II we would have been brought images of
If there is something naïve about 4th generation warfare theories, it would be just as true to say there is something cynical in them. There is something in these claims of spontaneous revulsions to scenes of civilian suffering and news of military deaths that is just a little bit too programmatic: that is, the slogans are now constructed so as to advertise the revulsion the theory claims one is bound to experience. As in many other ways, if
In other words, 4th generation war theory could just as easily be seen as providing the script for the alliances holding the Global Intifada together as strategy for defeating that alliance. Indeed, I haven’t done a survey, but I wonder how many of those pundits and theorists claiming we “have already lost” in
So, our problem is in fighting a global, holy, civil war over the constitution of reality. The Global Intifada is an attempt to “de-scenify” reality, to abstract reality from the necessarily unpredictable action and counteraction, trial and error, with all the resulting unintended consequences. The epistemology of the Global Intifada transforms “facts” directly into “conclusions” and “conclusions” directly into a “consensus” on “solutions.” To see a bombed marketplace in
But the recent progress of the Global Intifada has the beneficial side effect of exposing the devices involved and “cracks” in the progressive construction of reality. The Achilles Heel of the Global Intifada is that it can’t really exercise the power it gains, it can only use any conquest as a launch pad for further assaults on “pledged” reality. This is as true for the Democratic Congress as it is for Hamas: like any extortion racket, the Global Intifada cannot transcend its own parasitism. This means that the hordes of the Global Intifada must continually be creating new enemies behind its own front lines. I would further like to suggest that the Democrats, in pulverizing the tradition of leaving partisan political division at the water’s edge, have actually done us an enormous favor. Such restraint was unlikely to survive an age of internet, YouTube and billionaire political entrepreneurs anyway. If leading Democrats and free lance ambassadors like Jimmy Carter are now free, as a self-appointed government-in-exile (the “real” government, once our “nightmare” has been ended), to confer with America’s enemies abroad and undermine U.S. policy, then anyone, including private individuals and various public groups are free to support currently inconvenient allies, and promote, modify, and, most importantly, fill in the gaps of that policy. How many times have you heard someone (even yourself) say that the Bush Administration has been woefully inadequate in areas like public diplomacy? But anything that we might say the Administration should be doing in these areas we could easily be doing ourselves. What is to stop us—we, the people—from setting up a Radio Free Iran, or joint Iraqi-American educational enterprises in Iraq (for the latter we would admittedly need military protection, but, even here, perhaps private security services can be employed)?
At home, there is likewise nothing stopping us from the most “subversive” campaign we could conduct against the domestic branch of transnational progressivism: forming alliances, based upon conservative and libertarian principles, with precisely those “victim” groups upon which leftism depends. The right has already made some small steps here, in recruiting excellent black candidates and raising issues like school choice and vouchers as well as David Horowitz’s recruitment of college students on behalf of their own academic freedom, but here, again, private covenants can take things much further, organizing and publicizing groups of Arab and Muslim Americans against terrorism, workers against trade unions and so on. We need not be concerned with attracting only a small minority at first—the specific weakness of the progressive Left, like Communism, is that it must claim to speak in the name of unanimity of entire groups, and so the existence of even small groups of dissenters can be quite corrosive. And I’m sure I don’t need to say anything about the conservative contribution to the information revolution well under way.
These more specific interventions rest upon a mode of political thinking I would call a “calculus of covenants.” Reality is entirely framed in terms of covenants and their subsequent fulfillments, betrayals, renewals, and expansions; noteworthy actions are those situated within this frame, or engaged in defending or attacking the very possibility of a pledged reality. “Facts” are, similarly, recognizable as such insofar as they testify to the ongoing reality of some covenantal frame. In writing this very essay, I am proposing a covenant to you as my reader, a covenant which I hope to present as a renewal and extension of a whole history of covenants which themselves must be redeemed to be real; a covenant you consider and partially accept by virtue of continuing to read the text but will ultimately accept, reject, or revise and present, implicitly or explicitly to others.
The beauty of a calculus of covenants is that anyone can do it; in fact, we are all always doing it. Covenants are both malleable and durable, and each covenant reveals the possibility of others. If I propose, as a way of understanding U.S. policy in Iraq, a covenant with all those who want security and freedom in Iraq, in Christopher Hitchen’s words, that we be the “militia for those who have no militia,” that not only directs me toward the creation of appropriate policies but simultaneously sets me on the search for covenants among other Americans who would like to participate in this Iraqi-American covenant, with those of other nations who would like to participate, and so on, with each successive covenant modifying and accruing to the previous ones. I mean covenant here in the strong sense: not merely a contract, in which one agrees to exchange certain goods and services, but, rather, an agreement before the eyes of God, whom we invoke as judge, which is to say an agreement to share the same sacred object. At the same time, if it turns out that there are not enough freedom loving people in Iraq to support my proposed covenant, or that for whatever reason we are no longer able to sustain the forces needed to be their “militia,” rather than simply abandoning or revoking the covenant, insofar as there must be a least a single freedom loving individual in Iraq I keep faith with the covenant by supporting those individuals as civil disobedients or dissidents in whatever manner is possible, and along with whatever “lateral” covenants emerge in the process.
In the process, I produce a veritable market in covenants: by making myself worthy as an ally I make myself more valuable as a prospective ally, by creating enduring and prosperity producing covenants I make those covenants more valuable and attractive. I (we) are therefore able to make higher demands for those wishing to compact with us, and can become more complex and discerning in specifying the precise object of each covenant, along with different levels of participation and obligation. This is what I would like to call “5th Generation Warfare,” or holy, civil war over the constitution of reality. The constantly unfolding, ever unpredictable nature of our own nevertheless devoutly adhered to covenants reveals the aggregations of the Global Intifada to be glued together by nothing more than repetition and domination. Covenants require that one side put forth their hand first and wait for a response, accepting that the result might be a compromise that neither anticipated and will be generative for that very reason; the Left can do nothing more than repeat its traumatic origins in “McCarthyism,” or “Watergate,” or the “Palmer Raids,” or any other revelation of the anthropological “ultimacy” of the victimary status of those ejected from the normal center.
All institutions and relationships can thereby be resolved into their founding covenants and the degeneration and regeneration of those covenants. One of the most pernicious elements of the post-World War II, welfare state culture has been the assumption of a consensual “mainstream,” authorized to marginalize “extremes.” The deflection of American civilization during this period was toward anti-covenantal, anti-constitutional forms, toward the rule of experts in circularly self-accrediting institutions. Even conservatives play into the logic of such institutions when they complain about the “liberal bias” of the media. The very notion that the media should be unbiased is a liberal one, and unwittingly supports the association of journalism with institutions genuinely charged with disinterestedness, like scholarly activity and, more important, the judiciary. Criticizing journalists for falsifying the reality they report on is perfectly appropriate, of course, but there is nothing wrong with a newspaper or TV station primarily concerned with eviscerating one party in particular. The most healthy media environment is one in which each outlet seeks to please and increase its audience, and in which each reader therefore has access not merely to publications with widely varying political stances but publications with widely varying tolerance for error (so there would be some insisting upon very high standards of verification while others sacrifice some credibility in the interest of getting better hidden stories, or getting stories faster), with different standards for “appropriateness,” etc.—and without any one or any combination having the kind of near monopoly status that enables it to be certain that ignoring some other interest won’t cut into its own audience share. Meanwhile, newsmakers themselves would harvest their own “value” as objects of attention, and confer it upon those media markets they favor, while always needing to calculate the value they might be losing by sacrificing the attention of another audience, ultimately trying to use their “capital” to use antagonistic outlets for their own purposes.
The same is true, more problematically but therefore more exemplarily, for more entrenched institutions like our universities. In the last instance, universities provide their graduates with something employers or graduate and professional schools want; somewhere along the line it is likely that other ways of providing that, more cheaply and perhaps better, will be invented. On-line “academies,” for example, modeled on the discovery of free inquiry in ancient Greece, might hire tutors and issue certificates that such a participant has received such an evaluation from other participants in a reading group on American literature, or sociology, or a for pay apprenticeship at a blog or in a hospital or laboratory, and that, furthermore, this group including the following members and was supervised by the following tutors…in the end, one would put together a package that would have a certain value for employers and professional schools. In that case, each person and each institution will have to take responsibility for assessing value, which would, moreover, be constantly changing as such groups would most likely have far more rapid turnover than today’s universities. The day of the New York Times or Harvard “brand” would, thankfully, be over. And, rather than all of us being peppered by hysterical assertions of academic freedom or journalistic privilege, subversive and illuminating truths would come out because somewhere along the line we would find someone interested in helping the discoverer disseminate them, and we would all get in the habit of “shopping around.”
I would consider such associations products of a genuinely covenantal culture insofar as they would refer us back to the pledged reality each generates, rather than some manufactured or hyped “right” or empty references to the public good. Also, in order to “receive” and judge the results of such institutions we would need to covenant with others ourselves: enforcing an acceptable degree of transparency would require that we collaborate with others on determining norms and standards, on the distance between the reality and the pledge. We would all be gatekeepers, editors and certification boards for each other. And we can already begin to speak in these terms now, and thereby help hasten the arrival of such a reality, by examining institutions in terms of covenants between teachers and students and among faculty, between media outlets and readers and viewers and among journalists themselves: what, precisely, can we determine to be the implicit terms of any particular “covenant,” training ourselves to ignore banal invocations of journalistic “ethics” or academic “rigor” or “consensus.” There can and will, indeed, be covenants in which the participants pledge to suspend existing assumptions and arrive at a representation of reality all could contribute to, but the basis for judging such efforts will lie in the specific “devices” and “procedures” the covenant itself accounts for.
Proposing or even, at times, acting unilaterally on the assumption of a covenant with those behind enemy lines provides the most promising way of generating a pledged reality capable of displacing the viral one imposed by the Global Intifada. I mean this, first of all, in the simple sense of creating facts that can’t ignored because they in turn create webs of other facts which ultimately touch other facts that pretty much anyone would be interested in. In my most recent essay for New English Review, I proposed that the Israelis might offer citizenship to individuals (and their families) who help in substantive ways with finding kidnapped Israeli soldiers (or, let’s add, help break up the system of terror in other visible ways). The principle can be extended in many ways. We should, for example, be opening cracks in the increasingly monolithic Muslim world, by asserting Christian and liberal interests wherever we find them and introducing them where we don’t. If the Saudis can fund madrassahs throughout the world and give millions to fund chairs in Middle Eastern Studies we can surely establish Friedrich Hayek Centers for the Study of Economic and Political Liberty in
Most important, though, is what I would like to call, only partly tongue-in-cheek, a “Jew-Crusader Alliance.” I may be wrong here, but nothing, I think, could shatter the confidence of the jihadists more than actually seeing joint American-Israeli military operations; and then hearing us defend those operations unapologetically. We can be generous to Muslims who would explicitly abandon claims to Islamic supremacy precisely to the extent that we have freed ourselves from all conditions our “sensitivity” to the various hang-ups of the Muslim public has placed upon us. As along as we take for granted that “of course” any actual implementation of the U.S.-Israeli alliance would be “impossible” because it would enrage the Muslim “street,” then we are still allowing their rage (or fabricated expressions thereof) to determine our policy. This, of course, would ultimately be a public policy, but how about some think tank drawing up and publicizing the contingency plans for, say, a joint Israeli-American occupation of the Saudi oil fields? We need to find ways, among other things, of signaling how far we are ready to go if our present, more humane policy doesn’t work; and, as I have been suggesting, it would be far “healthier” for those of us impatient with the range of self-imposed restrictions under which we are currently operating if we could take action rather than gripe, and actions that, like the Swift Boat Vets media “operation” during the 2004 campaign, would actually help a well intentioned President (or encircle a less well intentioned one) even if he couldn’t find a way to endorse them.
This would take us into the fifth generation of warfare, in which the immense resources and advantages of liberty are set to work to break up totalitarianism and are no longer merely protected from them. And the approach I am arguing for would enable us, not to arrive at some ersatz and impotent “consensus,” but at a bracketing of all decisive questions that we don’t actually need to take on right now: for example, we do need to strengthen our civil institutions and principles by defending them domestically and globally, especially against more or less covert attempts to insinuate Sharia law, but we don’t necessarily have to decide once and for all about the reformability of Islam; we do need to distinguish between actual allies (those willing to fight and die with us) and formal and false ones, but we don’t necessarily have to decide yet whether or not the UN or NATO might turn out to be useful in some ways or need to be dispensed with. Even my proposal for common Israeli-American action raises no principled questions, only ones of prudence—and that a mere question of prudence has become so taboo is itself revealing. In fact, our willingness to consider such a break with an established taboo would itself be a sign of our enhanced “market value” as an ally; conversely, its “unthinkability” testifies to our sinking value. Clearly there would be a great deal to debate here, but the point would first of all to create events worthy of sparking such debate. In other words, we should first of all “seed” the world with “sites” we are ready to pledge ourselves to support and defend, and let that be our continuing source of reality.
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