Devil's Kitchen Comment

The less sweary writings of The Devil's Kitchen

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Special Circumstances In The Middle East

The Middle East is highly technically advanced, but does not seem to have developed the same political and civil freedoms that we in the West tend to take for granted. This situation is something of an anomaly: but why has it happened?

An Outline of The Culture

If you have never read the Culture novels of the science-fiction writer Iain M Banks, can I heartily recommend that you do so? The beauty of these novels is that The Culture themselves are effectively omnipotent and thus, unlike many low-grade sci-fi novels, the technology becomes utterly unimportant in terms of narrative. The stories always come down to the nature of the people involved – and many of those characters who are proactive are not, themselves Culture citizens – and politics.

Most especially, they deal with the Culture organisations known as Contact and Special Circumstances. These organisations might be roughly equated with the Foreign Office and Foreign Intelligence respectively; they are organisations that, logically enough, deal with the "contacting" of civilisations that are usually, but not always, less advanced than The Culture's own.

The Culture and Star Trek's Prime Directive

The Culture's usual principle can be broadly equated with the first part of Star Trek's Prime Directive, which states the following1.

“The Prime Directive dictates that there be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society, chiefly meaning that no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races.”

Where Contact (C) and Special Circumstances (SC) differ in this philosophy is in the second part of the Directive.

“It also forbids any effort to improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept totally secret.”

In contrast, C and SC will interfere to try, as they see it, to improve societies. The subtle way in which they occasionally do so, often over the period of many years, can be easily illustrated in Inversions, a novel that would only be recognised by those who have read other Culture novels and who would recognise the protagonists as being from that society; at other times they are less oblique, as in The Player Of Games or Use Of Weapons. And very occasionally – despite the Culture's sophistication and the almost limitless ability of the Artifical Intelligence “minds” who plan SC's strategies the development goes hideously, disastrously wrong: in Look To Windward, SC's well-meaning intervention leads to a bloody civil war on the planet Chel. Whatever happens, the Culture – unlike Star Trek's Starfleet – believes that active intervention is better than benign neglect. They will intervene to mould a society in the way that they think is best for that particular culture. (It is interesting, from a political point of view, that the Culture should be described as anarchist socialist civilisation)

Real-world political systems

To come back to modern politics, with a few exceptions, the most powerful and richest societies on earth are capitalist democracies, with democracy (in whatever form) being the operative word. The main societies that buck this trend are China (which I intend to discuss in a later post) and the oil-rich nations. These are, in general, the nations of the Middle East, which incorporate Iran, Iraq, the United arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, amongst others.

All of these nations are – or in Iraq's case, were – essentially dictatorships; totalitarian governments (which dictatorships always end up being, even if the original aim was not to be so, e.g. the Roman caesars) as rich as these are rare. Why should this be so?

The politics of innovation

In "free" countries, which are generally represented by democracies of some sort, the dissent that leads to innovation is allowed. Since there is a mechanism for removing an administration politically, that government has little to gain by oppressing its people; the people would simply vote them out of office (fingers crossed for the next British general election). Therefore, it is in these governments' interests to ensure the relative happiness of their peoples which, in capitalist societies, generally means ensuring that individuals have enough money to buy those things that make their lives more pleasant.

In order to be able to buy those things, innovators must invent them. Innovators are often mavericks, people who do not conform to societal norms (or at least their views do not). Think, for instance, of Gallileo or Newton. Is it any coincidence that the greatest technological and scientific advances – the ones that lasted – were made in the most "free" societies: Britain, one of the first European democracies, led much of the technical, scientific and engineering innovation for a couple of centuries.

The economics of innovation

And it is not enough to allow the innovators to innovate: there must be freedom of people to invest in those innovations as well. Isembard Kingsom Brunel, an engineering genius, would be almost unknown had his financiers not had the freedom to back him. If you want an example of how this might affect the development of a society, ask yourself how many totally original concepts were actually brought to fruition by Stalin's USSR.

Totalitarian regimes, in contrast, cannot allow this questioning of the status quo: once people start to question the nature of the world around them, they then start to question the way in which they are governed; and then, of course, whether those that govern them are the most suitable people to do so (again, China seems to be unusual here, as Boris Johnson MP discovered on his recent trip2). Thus, totalitarian regimes are pretty much characterised by their suppression of free speech as a tool for attempted suppression of free thought (a concept thoroughly explored in Orwell's 1984, especially as regards Newspeak. The theory was that, if one removed the language of rebellion, eventually the rebellious thoughts themselves would become impossible to express and would cease to occur at all). When unorthodox ideas cannot be communicated, let alone financially backed and developed, then innovation does not – cannot – happen.

The end result of this is that, in Europe at least, technical innovation has had to go hand-in-hand with political development. As people have become more free, so more inventions have been realised, the easier (and cheaper) people's lives have become and thus the richer they have become. To tie this together in the most elementary sense, in the West, how rich people have become has been intimately tied in with how "free" they are.

The Middle East

In the Middle East, this has not happened. Why?

The Middle Eastern countries that I have cited are all, in essence, totalitarian regimes. These regimes should either have been toppled years ago, or they should—much like most of Africa—be living in the direst poverty. Why are they not? And how is it that these regimes are not only poor, but are also strong players on the world stage, rather than political and economic irrelevancies like the majority of the African nations? The answer is simple: oil.

The West's reliance on carbon fuels started with the industrial revolution, and was initially predicated on coal. However, with the expansion of the British Empire and the discovery of oil – which was not only easier to extract than coal, but was also easier to store, transport and use – those coutries with oil reserves were suddenly sitting on vast reserves of what was known as "black gold". When the Empire contracted and, eventually withered away, the regimes that took over those reserves were suddenly immensely rich. And those riches they obtained power.

Power, control and innovation in the Middle East

It is not difficult to prove the maxim that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", and this is what those potentates now had. With a bastardisation of Islam to use as a tool of easy populace supppression, the ruling parties were able to entrench themselves in their towers; but this was only possible as long as the flow of oil continued.

Furthermore, however, they have not have to invent anything. All of the inventing has been done by the Europeans, and the oil-rich countries are able simply to buy all of the innovations that they need. Thus, in these countries, technical development has not had to go hand-in-hand with societal or political development. People have things to buy and, largely speaking, they have the money with which to purchase these goods. Where they do not, Islam's promise of a better future (or after) life in return for abstinence in this one – a principle largely shared by Christianity but more harshly proscripted in the radical forms of Islam, such as the Wahabiism endemic in Saudi – is able to keep the people subjugated, if not happy (although it could be argued that what religion actually does is to make people happy with what would otherwise be considered a rather inadequate lot).

In relation to The Culture

How does this relate to The Culture of Iain M Banks? In this way: the West's thirst for, and reliance on, oil could be considered equivalent to a catastrophic intervention in a totally separate culture, thus entirely affecting their development by artificially accelerating their technical advancement without forcing upon them the need to develop either culturally or politically. Thus we end up with totalitarian regimes that are effectively all-powerful within their own spheres of influence and, by virtue of the fact that the West is reliant on their oil, immune to anything but the most stringent, i.e. military, action by the only power that might practically remove them. One could look at it as being similar to an alien culture giving the atom bomb technology to the Nazis in 1936 or, more pertinently, to William the Conqueror.

Oil and the failure of political development

In conclusion, the failure of the Middle East to develop the "freedoms" that we, generally, take for granted in the West, is entirely down to the fact that we need the oil that comes out of their ground. This is, surely, one of the most compelling arguments for finding alternative sources of power; for as long as we need oil, the Middle Eastern countries will not develop culturally or politically because – and I apologise for borrowing a biological term here – there is no selective pressure for them to do so.

What we in the West must face is that our continued thirst for oil will keep on advancing the ability of these countries to be able to buy the technology that we invent, some of which may well be a threat to us or those we attempt to protect, e.g. the current worries over Iran's nuclear development and the concomitant threat to Israel.

Securing freedom

If we truly wish the peoples of the Middle East to be free (and always assuming, of course, that they wish to be so), then we must divorce ourselves from our oil needs. Simple military intervention, as has been clearly demonstrated in Iraq, will not work. No, we must totally eliminate, or at least severely reduce, our oil consumption.

With the oil props knocked away, those societies will start to collapse into economic ruin. At this point, we must employ the Prime Directive and not influence the way in which the society develops. Or in this case implode.

By that point, our strategy for rebuilding these countries must be clear. It will mean a more subtle intervention, with the West playing the part of The Culture rather than that of George Bush's Star Wars Empire. Let us simply hope that we have learned enough by that time not to end up having to Look To Windward...

  1. Wikipedia, The Prime Directive,

  2. Boris Johnson MP, CHINA,

Useful links:

  1. Wikipedia, The Culture,

  2. Wikipedia, Galilleo,

  3. Wikipedia, Newton,

  4. Wikipedia, Brunel,

  5. Wikipedia, Newspeak,

This article originally appeared on Wanabehuman, and was edited from an article that first appeared at The Devil's Kitchen.


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