To begin again: From Daniel Bensaïd

decult_cv_DanielBensaid

Driven to bed by the recurrence of an old condition, I spent the last few days reading the 2004 memoirs of Daniel Bensaïd: Une Lente Impatience, published last year in English as “An Impatient Life.”  Probably you haven’t heard of the author, unless you are as quirky as I am, in which case seek help. Bensaïd was a French Marxist activist, a revolutionary, and a major thinker of our post- (but not post enough) modern Left.

The son of a Sephardic Jew from Algeria, Bensaïd grew up in Toulouse. When he was fifteen years old and a student, the Paris police repeatedly indulged in horrific abuses against Algerian communities. In October 1961, the forces of order commanded by the authentic fascist Maurice Papon – who was convicted nearly forty years later for his Vichy-era collaboration with the Nazis – massacred up to 200 demonstrators for Algerian independence. They dumped many wounded in the Seine to drown. They slaughtered nine more at a protest the following February. The blood and the indifference — the killings remained unnoticed and unknown — galvanized Bensaïd into politics.

October 17, 1961: arrested pro-Algerian demonstrators huddle on the floor of Paris police headquarters. Many would soon be shot in the courtyard.

October 17, 1961: arrested pro-Algerian demonstrators huddle on the floor of Paris police headquarters, where, a little later, many would be shot in the courtyard.

Bensaïd joined the Communist Party’s youth wing, but, repelled by its reigning Stalinism, he quickly became the center of a left opposition within the ranks. In 1966 he helped found the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire,  a dissident group formally breaking with party orthodoxy.  In 1968 he was, with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leading impetus behind the Mouvement du 22 Mars – the students who ignited the May 1968 revolt that almost toppled de Gaulle.  In subsequent years he supported leftist movements in the global South, especially Latin America, where he worked with groups in Argentina and Colombia through the 1970s and 1980s. In Brazil, he assisted in building the Workers Party, which now governs the country.  As a teacher, philosopher, and theorist for the Fourth International, he contended in the 1990s that Southern social movements were vital players in revitalizing the Left. For the last 16 years before his death, Bensaïd lived with HIV and AIDS; complications from the treatments finally killed him, at 63, in 2010.

These days are bad days. In Europe, a racist right feeds off the energy of anti-austerity, anti-bureaucratic resistance: the men who massacred Algerians in 1961 can applaud their children sitting in the European Parliament. In Egypt, where I am now, a murderous general staged his own election landslide, and aims to extinguish the last embers of the fading Revolution. In the United States … but why even think  about that? A US gay blogger wrote yesterday that “critical theory” is destroying the gay movement by making trans people and brown people hate their benefactors, gay white men. The last is only one small idiocy; but Bensaid’s book, as I’ve been immersed in it this week, has become a site and not just a set of words amid all the stupidities and losses, a closed place where beleaguered hope can take refuge, a shelter where theory can pay its proper respects to practice. “There is no human activity that does not involve the intervention of thought,” he wrote. “The non-intellectual does not exist.”

So I want to share a few passages from his memoirs. Find the whole book here.

1. 

I hesitated for a long while before writing this book … [But] I experienced the feeling that we belonged to a landscape threatened with disappearance. We had all grown up in the historical sequence opened by the Great War and the Russian Revolution, on a continent that was now almost submerged. Our formative years – the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – were as remote, for the new minds of the new century, as the Belle Époque, the Dreyfus affair, or the heroic deeds of Teruel and Guadalajara had been to us. Can the light from our extinct stars still travel on? Is there still time to rescue this tradition from the conformism that always threatens?

Student protester beaten and arrested by police, Paris, May 1968

Student protester beaten and arrested by police, Paris, May 1968

To transmit, but what? And how? It is the heirs who decide the inheritance. They make the selection, and are more faithful to it in infidelity than in the bigotry of memorial. For fidelity can itself become a banally conservative routine, preventing one from being astonished by the present. How not to mistrust, anyway, that virtuous fidelity which betrayal accompanies like a shadow? Does one always know to what or to whom one is really faithful?

Fidelity has a past. It is never sure of having a future. Many friends, tired no doubt of often having had to press against the grain of history, have made peace with the intolerable order of things. How melancholy was the disenchanted fidelity of Flaubert’s ‘48ers in A Sentimental Education! “Remain faithful to what you were” means being faithful to the fissure of event and the moment of truth, where what is invisible usually reveals itself. It does not mean giving in to the command of the winners, surrendering to their victory, entering their ranks. As opposed to a dogged attachment to a faded past, it means “being faithful to the rendezvous”—whether one of love, politics, or history.

Woman waving flag in crowd during general strike demonstration, Paris, May 1968: by Jean-Pierre Ray

Woman holding flag in crowd during general strike demonstration, Paris, May 1968: by Jean-Pierre Ray

2.  

We have sometimes deceived ourselves, perhaps even often, and on many things. But at least we did not deceive ourselves about either the struggle or the choice of enemy.

Thirty years after independence, Algeria was in the grips of civil war. The war of liberation in Indochina took a bad turn, with the butchery in Cambodia and the conflicts between peoples who had proclaimed themselves brothers. The humanist socialism that Che dreamed of seems to have evaporated. And yet? Is this sufficient reason to go over to the winning side, arms and baggage, and enroll in the imperial crusades of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld?

The “dispersal of meaning” in no way justifies such rejections and rallyings. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, Jean-Christophe Bailly wrote about the 1960s:

Revolution changed its home base, its continent, according to political colour, but it came from outside, and had the irrational virtue of an emotion tied to something distant that had to be brought into being. An emotional movement, no doubt, even if it was armed with theories, and lent more to the actual combatants than they could return. Today the tone is one of mockery, even pride. People conceal the fact that they waved flags and shouted names, or else they laugh themselves sick. There was undoubtedly an immense amount of illusion – but if there had not been, there would not have been that movement, that leap, the active convergence of all those rejections, and would we not then have covered ourselves with shame, quite incomparable with the mistakes that we may have committed in the running fire of support actions?

This is my position too. The planet-wide demonstrations of 15 February 2003 against the imperialist war were a new struggle against the shame there would have been in doing nothing. Without seeking here any positive hero, which is certainly for the best: neither Bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein were champions of a new internationalism.

Duty performed, or useless service? As long as one claims the right to start again, the last word is never said. And one always commences from the middle, as Gilles Deleuze maintains. Neither a clean slate nor a white page: “It is the future of the past, as it were, that is in question.”

Student demonstrator confronting riot police, Paris, May 1968

Student demonstrator confronting riot police, Paris, May 1968

3.

Eternity does not exist. So it is necessary to wager on the “non-inevitable share of becoming” inscribed “in this general faculty of surpassing that takes varying forms, in dream, imagination, and desire” … The notion of commitment clumsily evokes this logical wager on the uncertain. A secular, everyday wager, launched anew every day.

This wager, unavoidable as long as the necessary and the possible remain in disagreement, is made by countless people across the world, however discreetly. The Polish dissident Karol Modzelewski, when asked one day for the secret of his perseverance, despite disappointments and disillusions, simply replied: “Loyalty to persons unknown.” There are always, beyond gregarious membership and exclusive identity, these elective affinities, these molecular loyalties, this hidden community of sharing, this minuscule conspiracy and discreet conjuration whose “secret name,” for Heine, was communism, transmitted from one person to another. Despite the infamies committed in its name, it remains the most pertinent word, the word most freighted with memory, the most precise and most apt to name the historic issues of the present time.

On 11 July 1977, at seven in the evening, Roberto MacLean was murdered in Barranquilla, on the doorstep of his house. An almost everyday occurrence: in Colombia, thousands of political executions take place every year. MacLean was black and a revolutionary. He was thirty-nine years old, and had been a political militant since the age of fourteen. He led the civic movement in his town. For more than ten years, he lived every day with the imminence of violent death.

Bensaid (on the left) marches with Alain Krivaine at the funeral of Pierre Overney, a Maoist militant killed by a security guard at the Renault Billancourt factory in Boulogne in February 1972

Bensaid (on the left) marches with Alain Krivine at the funeral of Pierre Overney, a Maoist militant killed by a security guard at the Renault Billancourt factory in Boulogne in February 1972

A digression? In fact, nothing could be more pertinent. MacLean is a kind of emblematic representative of those unknowns to whom we are tied by an irredeemable debt.

I have no religious sense of redemptive suffering. I have never conceived my commitments as asceticism or reparation. I have never taken vows of intellectual poverty or chastity. As a young Communist, I took an immediate dislike to the bureaucratic bigotry of the Stalinist priests and its Maoist counterpart. The young red guards in their French version, hymning the thoughts of the Great Helmsman, were odious to me – these little monks who gave their person to the Cause (of the people or the proletariat). The Cause? It never occurred to me to sacrifice to such ventriloquous idols. Political militancy for me is the opposite of a sad passion. A joyous experience, despite its bad moments. My party, like that of Heine, is “the party of flowers and nightingales.”

During the gloomy 1980s, we stuck to our course under the satisfied condescension of the various “exes,” who had given up on everything but themselves. In a tone of ironic compassion, behind which sarcasm visibly lurked, they would ask: “Still a militant, then, old chap … ?” As if we were a disappearing species, the last Mohicans of a condemned tribe. As if we had lost our time and wasted our talents, instead of climbing the ladder of a successful career garlanded with laurels.

In the next decade, there was a change of air, even if it didn’t exactly turn scarlet. The tone had changed. The arrogance of the “winners” was seized with doubt and far more muted. They could see that we had avoided, in a bad time of restoration and counter-reform, a grotesque shipwreck on “the terrible sea of action without purpose.”

No, we hadn’t wasted our time. We rubbed shoulders with many indispensable unknowns – hundreds and thousands of MacLeans. We experienced wonderful friendships, and resurrecting shocks propitious for the rejuvenation of hearts and souls. Of course, we had more evenings of defeat than triumphant mornings. But we put behind us that Last Judgment of sinister memory. And, by dint of patience, we won the precious right to begin again.

4.

When strategic directions are confused or erased, it is necessary to return to the essential: what it is that makes the world as it is unacceptable and makes it impossible to resign oneself to the blind force of things. Its explosive mixture of partial rationalization and growing global irrationality. The disproportion and disarray of a deranged world. This is why the world still has to be changed, and still more profoundly and more urgently than we had imagined forty years ago. Any doubt bears on the possibility of succeeding, not on the necessity of trying ….

Paris, 1968, at a mass meeting held by Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire: from the left, Ernest Mandel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Henri Weber, and Bensaïd

Paris, 1968, at a mass meeting held by Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire: from the left, Ernest Mandel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Henri Weber, and Bensaïd

Politics is an art of decision, and implies constructing a power. By establishing the exception as norm, it resolves a critical situation. For a new right is never deducible by genealogy from an old right, without rupture or discontinuity. It comes about by the mediation of force.

How to act in such a way that this force is not reduced to arbitrary brutality? Between two opposing rights, a decision has to be made. “Choosing your camp” means deciding. And deciding means a certain sacrifice of complexity, of a good number of possibilities, rather like amputating a virtual part of oneself. The real, after all, what is called “actually existing,” is a great cemetery of possibilities. …

There is no ultimate certainty on which to base judgment. We are embarked, as the subtle Pascal put it. It is impossible to escape the tough duty of deciding.

So we have to wager.

Max Weber defined politics as the vocation of the man who, when the world seems too stupid or too petty to hope to change it, does not collapse and remains able to say “however” and “despite everything.”

What exactly is the politics on which we embarked forty years ago? Contemptuously defying the orthodox tradition, we happily proclaimed that “everything is political.” Everything is quite a lot, indeed too much. Everything? To a certain extent, and up to a certain point. If we want to avoid politics becoming despotic and totalitarian by devouring everything else, then that exact extent and precise point are decisive. Another register, another temporal regime: you cannot legislate on the Oedipus complex or on sexual orientation as you can on the civil service or social security.

Prague demonstration on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 21 August,1969, by Gilles Caron: © Fondation Gilles Caron

Prague demonstration on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 21 August,1969, by Gilles Caron: © Fondation Gilles Caron

Politics is said to be in crisis, struck by impotence and threatened with disappearing. Hannah Arendt was already worried that it would disappear completely from the world. The statisation of the social, the confusion between right and might, is one form of this menace. Another form is the crushing of the public space between the wheels of economic constraint and those of a culpabilising moralism: this is the danger of a “soft,” market totalitarianism. …

To rescue politics from these threats of disappearance, it has to be conceived anew, as the site of deliberation and decision where different spaces and rhythms combine. Those of the economy, of information, of ecology and of law are no longer in tune with one another. We have therefore to abandon the mirage of a politically homogeneous space and time, and learn to conceive the sites and moments of a future politics. Their articulation will determine the ability to open perspectives both spatial (territorial and local) and temporal (of memory and expectation), without which depoliticized politics degenerates into the management of a shrunken present, without either past or future.

Protest at rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, 6 May 1968, by Gilles Caron: © Fondation Gilles Caron

Protest at rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, 6 May 1968, by Gilles Caron:
© Fondation Gilles Caron

Aluta continua: On loving Mandela

This is just part of an extremely neat infographic on Mandela's life, created for his birthday; the full thing is available at http://www.bestmswprograms.com/nelson-mandela/

This is just part of an extremely neat infographic on Mandela’s life, created for his ninety-fifth birthday; the full chart is available at http://www.bestmswprograms.com/nelson-mandela/

Back in 1990, Nelson Mandela, newly freed, came to Boston on a US visit to raise awareness (and money) for the continuing liberation struggle. Massachusetts was, of course, one of the heartlands of liberal support for South African freedom, even through the darkest and most racist days of Reagan. (I remember sitting in a Harvard Square cafe some years before, as a very nice white lady next to me tried to manage an ill-behaved two-year-old boy. “Bish! Bish!” she kept saying, but I didn’t know what this imprecation meant till the end of her patience arrived: she warned sternly, “You keep your hands out of that butter, Bishop Tutu McNally.”)  He spoke on Boston Common, and the turnout was enormous, reinforcing the rock-star quality of the tour. I went down to hear him. I don’t remember anything he said, and I doubt anyone else there did either. Although Mandela obviously could be extremely eloquent, his US reputation even at that point was caught in an antinomy like the old divines’ dispute over Jesus: Did his teachings matter more, or his miracles?

With Mandela, the words-versus-works controversy was already settled in the miracles’ favor. The image of the man, wonder-working in his saintliness, transcended any particular message he might try to convey. What remains of the event is the picture of a small Madiba doll on stage, whose mere presence promised absolution for a myriad local sins and omissions to the worshipping, overwhelmingly white throng.

Crowd listening to Nelson Mandela, Boston, June 23, 1990: © Paul W. Locke on Flickr

Crowd listening to Nelson Mandela, Boston, June 23, 1990: © Paul W. Locke on Flickr

Walking back across the Common and feeling unaccountably melancholy as the crowd disbanded, I ran into a black man, dishevelled and a little drunk or stoned, who started beleaguering me. “What the fuck, do you think you own this place, asshole? That guy” — gesturing back toward the defunct convocation — “is gonna teach you a lesson. He’s gonna show the white man who rules. White people ain’t gonna rule no more, motherfucker. You think you can do what you want? Just wait.” This was in the days of ignorance, long before George Zimmerman came to earth to bring us enlightenment: I didn’t realize that I could just shoot him. Instead I got into an conversation, starting with the predictable premises: a) I am not oppressing anybody right now; b) I am here to support Mandela, because I am on the right side. I don’t recall the outcome of the discussion (though it does strike me that in those days of jahiliyya, fewer white people carried guns), but I don’t think it was productive. Even in my racially and politically rather callow state back then, however, it did occur to me that the guy had a point. Not so much in the substance of what he said, as in rather bluntly reminding me Mandela didn’t mean the same thing to everybody. Despite all the white people who insisted he stood for forgiveness — mainly, their forgiveness — there were others to whom he signified aluta continua, the struggle goes on, we are still militant while oppression still stalks the streets and parks. His person– and this was true in South Africa, too, because he could never have kept the faith of the masses without it — could channel not only love but anger. For some, he came to bring not peace but a sword.

In Minima Moralia, Adorno wrote:

Before the eighty-fifth birthday of an in all respects well cared-for man, I dreamed that I asked myself the question, what could I give him which would make him truly happy? I immediately received the answer: a guide through the realm of the dead.

As Mandela turns ninety-five, I am struck by the demands, from South Africa and elsewhere, that he refrain from dying. I too wish he could be eternal, but not like Tithonus, settling into a decay unmitigated by the consolation of mortality. The man has done everything he was put on earth to do; nothing more can be asked of him. He is sick. He needs rest.

Obviously, however, he’s more than frail flesh now, even at the end point of his frailty. He is, as he’s been for fifty years, a symbol. The insistence on his survival is also a desperate supplication that the things he came to symbolize — the possibility of dialogue, the promise of forgiveness, the example of how a civil state can be built despite a deep foundation of violence, and, of course, the state he built, South Africa — can all survive.

If they mean anything, of course, they’ll survive without him. But they’re so fragile; some of them (forgiveness, for instance) are always fragile. Bloemfontein to Boston, none of us are so at ease with facing the desolation of reality that we don’t cling to a veil of symbols to keep ourselves standing.

Both man and symbol of the Black Atlantic: Statue of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Allada, Benin

Both man and symbol of the Black Atlantic: Statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Allada, Benin

Yet there’s a great deal to be learned from, and about, Mandela beneath the symbol. Maybe those lessons will become more teachable (as Obama might say) once the man-as-symbol is gone. One remarkable thing is that he’s one of the twentieth century’s very few revolutionaries who also succeeded in building a democratic state. In fact, he’s almost the only one. It’s as if the talents and lives of Gandhi and Nehru cohabited in one person. Except, of course, he was never a simple Gandhian; he paid his obeisance to non-violence as an ideal, but when he saw the extent of the apartheid state’s violence, he believed in fighting back. One would have to add Subhas Chandra Bose to the mix, then, and probably plenty of others from different strands of history: from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Che, from Sandino to Lumumba. The image of Mandela we have is like one of those Baroque effigies of saints constructed to contain and conceal a jumble and diversity of relics — for he was diverse and self-contradictory, like anybody. There is no particular contradiction between his latter-day embrace of forgiveness and his long pursuit of the struggle, though. Peace was only possible when the apartheid regime abandoned power. There was no possibility it would do so peacefully. Reconciliation would only come as a consequence of resistance.

Everybody has their own Mandela. The magnificent figure of the opening statement at the Rivonia trial is a canonical one. His peroration, as he prepared to face the life sentence of which he would serve twenty-seven years, is now inscribed on the wall of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, a kind of Fiat Lux for the country as it is now:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.


Audio of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia treason trial, April 20, 1964

There are other objects in the reliquary, though. There is the speech he gave to the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Addis in 1962, a great summation of Third-Worldism adduced as “evidence” in his trials later. An internationalist all his life, he nonetheless held that people had to shoulder responsibility for their own freedom — although he knew all too clearly what ruthless violence they would face.

The view has been expressed in some quarters outside South Africa that, in the special situation obtaining in our country, our people will never win freedom through their own efforts. Those who hold this view point to the formidable apparatus of force and coercion in the hands of the government, to the size of its armies, the fierce suppression of civil liberties, and the persecution of political opponents of the regime. Consequently, in these quarters, we are urged to look for our salvation beyond our borders. Nothing could be further from the truth. …

South Africa is now a land ruled by the gun. The government is increasing the size of its army, of the navy, of its air force, and the police. Pill-boxes and road blocks are being built up all over the country. Armament factories are being set up in Johannesburg and other cities. Officers of the South African army have visited Algeria and Angola where they were briefed exclusively on methods of suppressing popular struggles. All opportunities for peaceful agitation and struggle have been closed. Africans no longer have the freedom even to stay peacefully in their houses in protest against the oppressive policies of the government. During the strike in May last year the police went from house to house, beating up Africans and driving them to work. …

But we believe it would be fatal to create the illusion that external pressures render it unnecessary for us to tackle the enemy from within. The centre and cornerstone of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa lies inside South Africa itself. Apart from those required for essential work outside the country, freedom fighters are in great demand for work inside the country. We owe it as a duty to ourselves and to the freedom-loving peoples of the world to build and maintain in South Africa itself a powerful, solid movement, capable of surviving any attack by the government and sufficiently militant to fight back with a determination that comes from the knowledge and conviction that it is first and foremost by our own struggle and sacrifice inside South Africa itself that victory over White domination and apartheid can be won.

Myself, I turn to his less-famous statements when put on trial by the South African regime (for inciting resistance and for leaving the country illegally), in 1962:

I challenge the right of this court to hear my case on two grounds. Firstly, I challenge it because I fear that I will not be given a fair and proper trial. Secondly, I consider myself neither legally nor morally bound to obey laws made by a parliament in which I have no representation.

Police outside the Pretoria Palace of Justice as the Rivonia treason trial opens, 1963: Bailey African History Archives

Police outside the Pretoria Palace of Justice as the Rivonia treason trial opens, 1963: Bailey African History Archives

Mandela said the state and its whole apparatus of injustice was illegitimate, and he claimed the right to resist it by means corresponding to its own. The historic resonance of what he said perhaps obscures the fact that it’s not a strategic thing for a lawyer to assert in a courtroom, when the lawyer is on trial for (several years of) his own life. It effectively convicted him in advance of the treason he’d be charged with a year later. He was ready for that. He laid out the principle of resistance to immoral authority in terms even clearer than Thoreau’s:

Government violence can do only one thing, and that is to breed counter violence. We have warned repeatedly that the government, by resorting continually to violence, will breed in this country counter-violence amongst the people, till ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the government – ultimately, the dispute between the government and my people will finish up by being settled in violence and by force. Already there are indications in this country that people, my people, Africans, are turning to deliberate acts of violence and of force against the government, in order to persuade the government, in the only language which this government shows by its own behaviour that it understands.

Elsewhere in the world, a court would say to me, ‘You should have made representations to the government.’ This court, I am confident, will not say so. Representations have been made, by people who have gone before me, time and time again. Representations were made in this case by me; I do not want again to repeat the experience of those representations. The court cannot expect a respect for the processes of representation and negotiation to grow amongst the African people, when the government shows every day, by its conduct, that it despises such processes and frowns upon them and will not indulge in them. Nor will the court, I believe, say that, under the circumstances, my people are condemned forever to say nothing and to do nothing. If this court says that, or believes it, I think it is mistaken and deceiving itself. Men are not capable of doing nothing, of saying nothing, of not reacting to injustice, of not protesting against oppression, of not striving for the good of society and the good life in the ways they see it. Nor will they do so in this country.

The Mandela of resistance is the one I am remembering as he turns ninety-five. It’s not that I don’t value the legacy of comity and reconciliation — I do. But the world I choose to live in is a secular one, where forgiveness is not a transcendent obligation but a political choice.

What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is? For the world is deeply ailing.” There is much still to resist. If that means there’s much to forgive, then resisting it comes first. In South Africa, the state Mandela built massacred 34 striking miners in Marikana last year. The state is still democratic, still open, still lawful; but it is also increasingly under the rigid hegemony of neoliberalism, looking more and more like a reserve run for the rich by the purchasable. The malls in Sandton where the white bourgeoisie used to go to get away from blacks are now where a black bourgeoisie goes, for the same reason. Nor does this make South Africa worse than or different to many other formally free polities, policed and segregated against the demanding poor. Freedom increasingly doesn’t guarantee the right to move about, the right to demonstrate, the right to vote among meaningful alternatives, even — in some primitive places that have regressed especially far, like Pennsylvania — the right to vote in the first place. Pass laws have given way to gated communities; the ethic of Sandton is the one George Zimmerman killed for. Would Mandela resist this world? Think.


Miriam Makeba, Aluta Continua

The military and modernity

Red states

In his brilliant history of the US war in Vietnam, which I’ve been reading desultorily, Gabriel Kolko writes:

By early 1963 … W. W. Rostow had initiated discussions among Washington planners of the military’s role in the Third World, bringing the then fashionable military “modernization theory” to the executive’s attention. In effect, he argued, the reliance on civil authorities in the Third World after 1945 had been an error. The military establishments were far better transmitters of Western values and the most promising modernizers of the traditional orders. And because the United States controlled aid to them as well as direct training, Rostow urged much greater exploitation of these levers to advance US interests. Its “benevolent authoritarianism” would both create national unity and hold power in trust for the less competent civilians. … In Indonesia or Vietnam there were few options to a reliance on the military; the idea was then, as it is today, quite respectable among decision makers.

Kolko wrote this in 1985, at the Reagan administration’s height. But when you look at the regimes the US supports now in places like Egypt or Uganda, one has to wonder how differently the decision makers imagine “modernity” today.