[INTERVIEW]Toffler on empire, neo-cons and the new ageKim Young-hie: Does the Bush administration want a pro-American democratic secular government in Iraq, with wide-ranging domino effects on neighboring countries?
Alvin Toffler: I think that there are neo-conservatives who believe that it would have that general effect. And they may be correct.
I mean that if you listen to the critiques, one side says it's all about oil. That Americans just want the oil. I don't think that's true because we could always buy on the spot market, it doesn't depend on which country it comes from. So that's too simple. Sure, some people may prefer to have access to that oil directly but that's not the central question. If you say it is the restructuring of relationships in the Middle East generally ― sure, that's another factor. I believe that the administration did believe that there were weapons of mass destruction. And that in fact when Bush said what he said he believed it. But of course, people also believe what they wish to believe and there was enough evidence from not just U.S. intelligence but from European intelligence sources. And of course the record of Saddam's evasion of UN resolutions for 12 years.
There was plenty of reason to believe that in fact if he didn't have mass weapons, he would have them at some point. I'm reminded of a situation that went back to the first Gulf War when they were surprised to discover that Saddam’s nuclear campaign was far more advanced at that time than anybody had thought.
Kim: Is the United States trying to become the Rome of the 21st century?
Toffler: Well, I have no doubt there are people who describe it as Rome, but when we talk about imperialism and colonialism, the classic case is Great Britain 150 years ago. Now, how did that work?
There were many purposes, “civilizing the non-whites of the world” was an excuse. But underlying that was basic economics. With military force on the horizon, they could arrange terms of trade that were very favorable. So they would then buy cotton in India, take the cotton to Manchester and turn it into apparel. Then they would put the apparel on the ship, send it right back to India and sell it at a high price. So imperialism was profitable. The factories always stayed in Britain. The advanced technologies stayed in Britain.
Today, anybody who thinks that imperialism would work the same way is in for a great shock because the factories don't matter. What matters is knowledge. What matters is the information that drives those factories, and knowledge cannot be monopolized, no matter how hard we try. That changes the economic bases of colonialism or imperialism.
Kim: What does it take to become an empire in this century today? Where do America and Rome converge and diverge in terms of qualifications, conditions to be an empire?
Toffler: Well, first of all, there was no enormous disparity in the weapons available to the conqueror and to to the subject populations. There were some technological differences in weapons but nothing like the asymmetry of weaponry in today's world. So first of all, there is this enormous disparity and the fact that the most powerful weapons are no longer monopolized by one or two countries. Second, the scale of things today is much greater than it was for Rome.
But more important, what's changed is the speed. When we talk about Rome, we're talking about centuries. Maybe even a thousand years. America hasn't existed for much more than 200 years. American dominance is basically post-Cold War. So we are talking about a little more than a decade.
The faster change occurs, the more everything becomes temporary and transient; including, I believe, the distribution of power on the planet. And I don't believe that American power is going to last a thousand years. I don't believe it's going to last a hundred years. I would measure it in decades rather than centuries. So I think there are enormous differences between the historical images of Rome and the reality today. And I would then return to the question from the point of view of peace. It is by no means clear that a multilateral arrangement is a more peaceful arrangement than a unilateral arrangement.
Kim: Will China or Europe be able to constrain the United States within two or three decades?
Toffler: I would vote on China more than Europe. The reason for that is that Europe is basically, to use a Rumsfeldian term, old. It is culturally technophobic; there is a deep underlying resistance to technological development in Europe. Even though there are brilliant scientists, the fundamental cultural posture of Europe and more specifically of the European Union is not favorable to technological development.
By contrast, I believe that Asia with China and Japan and Korea in the lead are technophilic. Up until the current leadership, the leaders of China grew up as Marxists, and Marxists learned if nothing else that technology is important and that it has social, economic, political and other implications. So Marxists are generally favorably disposed toward technological development.
But even more specifically, this entire generation of Chinese leadership was trained as engineers. So they come with a eager familiarity with, or at least a respect for the power of technology to transform economies and societies. That's the opposite of the point of view of the Europeans, who for 50 years have been asleep at the keyboard.
Kim: Are these American neo-conservatives just a bunch of intellectuals, or do Americans share the thought that there is a God-given messianic mission for Americans as the chosen people?
Toffler: I don't think that’s a majority view. I think that is a minority view. I think that the alternative view which most Americans feel in their gut is essentially isolationist. They say, “Why should we get in trouble with the rest of the world? We are doing fine here.” So it's not an issue of multilateralism versus unilateralism, empire versus non-empire. It's should we be involved with the world at all? And I don't believe that there is a very large constituency for what is regarded as a neo-con plan for the world. But at the same time, Americans in general are not terribly well-informed about the rest of the world, and there is a reason for that. What Americans do has effects on all parts of the world, and the reverse is not necessarily true. So Americans, I think, do not necessarily share the neo-con vision. Now let me say for the neo-cons, these are very intelligent people. They raise important questions. But their intellectual questions are strategic questions that a relatively small population pays attention to.
Another issue is the word “pre-emption.” This is a controversial issue. Countries faced by terror of the kind that was so dramatically illustrated on Sept. 11 will quickly adopt the same language of pre-emption as the United States has. Once they are targeted, as Bush has asked, should they wait for the next attack or do they want to pre-empt that from happening?
I should also note that one of the chief antagonists to the idea of pre-emption was Kofi Annan. However, if we go back about two years, there was a rebellion in Sierra Leone. A handful of ragged rebels with rifles captured the capital and the airport and only a show of force could get rid of them. And so well-armed soldiers turned up and drove them away. Those well-armed soldiers wore blue helmets.
The next day, Kofi Annan made a speech proudly announcing that they had pre-empted serious problems. He used that word. The idea that pre-emption is a dirty word or that the act of pre-emption is bad is just nonsense. The question is what is being pre-empted? And that does raise serious questions.
Kim: How do you rate the influence of the Christian right on both President Bush's domestic policies and his pro-Israel Middle East policy?
Toffler: Well, I think it's disproportionate. Lee Atwater, a political operative for President Nixon, once told me, “I hate the radical right. They deliver 4 percent of the vote and they make 30 percent of the noise.”
But I think that in the case of this administration, President Bush does seem to be more than just a casual Christian.
This religiosity is part of a reaction against the ’60s, which many feel went way too far in the direction of unbridled hedonism and permissiveness. But there's also a broader attack on enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 1600s and 1700s that brought us the fundamental concepts of democracy, of progress, of a whole set of assumptions about the way the world works, secularism, and the separation of church and state. And these issues have been the fundamental basis of the American state, and indeed of Europe as well. This was part of the industrial revolution. It was the cultural intellectual component of the industrial revolution. And what we are now seeing is a move beyond ― there is a move beyond this and a move back to this. Both in conflict. On the one hand, you have the religious right and the seriously anti-secular component of the population which, given the opportunity, would put Christian symbols in every classroom and every courtroom and insist on imposing their views on the rest of the society. They complain that secularism is itself a religion which is pressuring them. So this is a conflict going on here.
But there is a third element which is not the Christian right but the new age. And in the new age movement, you have scores of pseudo-religious, quasi-religious spiritualists, openly religious movements of one kind or another, that more properly reflect the emergent society than do the old religions. Now, I myself am not any of these alternatives, but the one that seems to me more in consonance with the emergent third-wave society is in fact the new age, because it is so diverse. Because it doesn't have a single message for everybody.
We are moving from a mass society which is based on mass production and mass media, mass education and mass markets. That was the industrial age.
We are moving toward a new kind of civilization in which there is much more individuality, customization of products, more alternative lifestyles; and that is reflected in the increasing heterogeneity of spiritual or religious views. So to me the rise of the new age reflects this emerging third wave civilization better than previous positions.
But politically, it probably if you probably took a vote among people who identified themselves with the “new age” alternative grouping, they are probably liberal Democrats, despite the fact that the Democratic Party hasn't had a fresh idea for 50 years.
Kim: Does your crystal ball tell you that President Bush may end up a one-term president like his father was?
Toffler: Well, I threw away my crystal ball. What is most interesting is the Schwarzenegger effect. He could essentially push the Republican Party in a more moderate direction in the next election. He flies in the face of the extreme right, particularly the religious right. It may be that Republicans will decide that if Bush is to win another term, the party will have to moderate its views.
But the Democrats have nine candidates, not one of whom has presented a single refreshingly new idea.
by Kim Young-hie
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