Sometime ago, when I was chatting with a recently-retired gentleman during an American sojourn, he said he supported then-candidate Donald Trump’s call for a Muslim ban in order to defend his way of life. Ever one for an argument, I told him that his way of life was responsible for radical Islam, and that his pension-fund had produced jihad.
Well, that got his attention, so he insisted I explain my reasoning. So here goes my logic. In his best-selling account of the fall of the Roman Empire, Peter Heather coined ‘Newton’s Third Law of Empires’ – that ‘the exercise of imperial power generates an opposite and equal reaction among those affected by it, until they so reorganize themselves as to blunt the imperial edge.’ And this sort of blowback effect, Peter and I argue in a book on which we’re currently working, explains much of what is happening in our world today.
Our capitalist system was built atop imperialism, which provided the markets and supplies for the factories of the West. As the West grew richer, its states grew stronger, ultimately providing a range of services – feeding the poor, educating children, giving everyone a sense of belonging and security – for which our ancestors had once looked to the heavens and their churches. Societies grew less religious, and as that happened, our traditions changed. Pensions, for example, freed us from the necessity of having large families to look after us in our dotage. We came to think of ourselves as independent, looking after our own needs from cradle to grave by paying into a fund.
However, pensions are really just an ingenious sleight of hand which create a few degrees of separation between you and the children who’ll look after you when you stop working. Your fund-manager is but the closest link in a long chain of contractual obligations, at the end of which are the people who’ll support you when you retire. Your payments into your fund merely buy you a share of the eventual fruits of someone else’s labour. Instead of later living off your children, you’ll live off someone else’s.
That makes things interesting. Since most of us aren’t having many kids any more, the so-called dependency ratio is rising. The number of working people who are generating the surpluses off which the inactive population live, is getting too small to support us all. That means fund-managers have to go looking for workers elsewhere. They can either go to those societies where poverty and insecurity ensure that people still have large families – which is to say the Third World – or they can bring those people here.
In fact, we’re doing both. Private pension-funds have made good returns investing in firms which out-source their production elsewhere. The resulting de-industrialisation at home has helped power the rise of the angry white male, who provides a base for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politicians. But at the same time, Western societies have been importing immigrants from Third-World countries to pay the taxes needed to support public pensions. Since immigrants tend to settle disproportionately in working-class communities, this clash between nativism and foreigners grows acute on our own soil.
Unlike Western societies, which have grown less religious and more diverse, Third-World societies have grown more religious and less diverse ever since the days of empire. Whereas we, aided by our governments, have felt we could look after ourselves without divine intervention, the same couldn’t be said of the Third World, where religion has become ever more important to the victims of our prosperity. This religious upsurge gained speed and intensity after the 1970s, when neoliberal reforms in developing countries eliminated many of the state programmes Third-World countries used to create safety nets for their citizens.
But while the message of a restored spirituality was itself appealing in such circumstances, the real strength of the newly-revived religious groups was that they provided ordinary people with access to the material resources the state had said it would provide them, but was now failing to deliver. Time and again, research has revealed that religious foundations have used charity to build virtual welfare-states in poor communities of the Third World, plugging the gaps of retreating states. Such secure bases have then provided a small minority of radical jihadists safe spaces from which to launch attacks on the West. Meanwhile, the rising hostility towards Muslims in Western societies, fanned by nativist politicians, has provided a fertile harvest of young recruits with bones to pick with the countries that raised, but rejected them.
So, voila, a pension-fund has created the vectors of communication along which hostile forms of religious revivalism could work their way back into the West, and recruits to jihad. Such is the price of keeping ourselves in the style to which we’ve grown accustomed. We might as well grow accustomed to it, because for now, in our determination to maintain ourselves at all cost, the nexus is only tightening.
Image: Westminster at Night, London, February 2017