Interview with American philosopher and author Charles Eisenstein



Kourosh Ziabari – Iran Review: More than two years after the outburst of conflict and violence in Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is being accused of killing its own citizens and using chemical weapons against the rebels. Although these claims haven’t been substantiated with credible evidence yet, the United States and its allies are ratcheting up their war rhetoric against Syria and lobbying to ensure a UN Security Council resolution that will permit them to launch limited, surgical attacks against Syria’s military and government sites and perhaps lead to the removal of President Assad from power.

The crisis in Syria has embattled the country in a complicated and unusual situation which sounds astoundingly critical and detrimental to the regional and global peace and security. In some three years, Syria has been witness to a confrontation between the government forces, extremist rebels and foreign-backed mercenaries, including the U.S.-allied Al-Qaeda fighters.

Several meetings have been held for finding a viable and decisive solution to the crisis in Syria, but the world powers, the opponents of Syria and even its allies have been unable to put an end to bloodshed and civil war in Syria.

In order to discuss the situation in Syria, the approach taken by the Western powers and Arab states toward Syria, the allegations of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and the prospects of civil war in this country, I interviewed prominent American author and philosopher Charles Eisenstein.

Charles Eisenstein is the author of the 2011 book “Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition.” He is a public speaker whose writings usually appear on The Guardian’s Comment is Free section and Counterpunch website. In 2013, journalist and author Rory Spowers described Eisenstein as a “refreshing new voice” with a very spiritual perspective.

What follows is the text of my interview with Charles Eisenstein.

Q: Some of the Syrian opposition leaders have rejected the possibility of an agreement with the government despite the Russia-U.S. deal based on which the Syrian government would publicly declare its arsenal of chemical weapons and bring its chemical arms under the UN safeguards. According to the deputy prime minister, the civil war in Syria has reached a stalemate. How is it possible to end the violence in Syria and find a negotiated, peaceful solution to the 2-year-long crisis there?

A: There are two ways to peace. One is a kind of false peace in which one side overcomes the other and achieves total victory. Real peace comes from a foundation of reconciliation, dialog, and forgiveness. People on both sides have deep grievances and valid psychological reasons to hate the other side. People on both sides have lost loved ones and seen their lives devastated. To have real peace, they will have to give up on revenge, so that the cycle of violence and trauma doesn’t persist into eternity.

A good model for how that might be done can be found in the South African Peace and Reconciliation Committees; also in Rwanda, Liberia, and other places. Negotiated political settlements are a good first step, and quite possible once the United States and other powers stop using Syria as a geopolitical pawn. But we want more than a tense peace with hatred seething underneath.

Q: The recent allegation leveled against the Syrian government by the United States and its European allies is that the government has used chemical weapons against the rebels in the Ghouta district of Damascus on August 21; however, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has just stated that there’s reliable evidence that they are the rebels who possess chemical weapons and may use them against the civilians. What’s your idea on that?

A: We may never know the truth. Nearly anyone in a position to evaluate the evidence has a political interest in coming up with one conclusion or another. Certainly it would seem that the rebels have more to gain from bringing outside powers into more direct intervention. Moreover, neither side of the conflict is monolithic. It could have been a rogue element inside the government, or an accident. But is the question of blame really the most important question?

It is dangerous to oppose U.S. intervention on the grounds that maybe the Syrian government wasn’t responsible for the poison gas. Such opposition implicitly concedes that if, in fact, the government was responsible, then America should launch the bombs. It also grants the premise that chemical weapons are worse than conventional weapons, drone attacks, bombs, depleted uranium munitions, and other things that many countries (including the U.S.) use. Finally, it agrees with the pro-war faction that punishment and deterrence are effective in stopping future crimes against humanity.

Focusing on who used the gas also obscures the larger context. It turns a complicated problem with numerous historical, cultural, economic, and political interests into a narrow and simplistic game of “Who is the bad guy?” That game legitimizes the assumptions of the militaristic mind, even if the bad guy turns out to be the rebels, because the whole debate over who made the gas attack reinforces the narrative of “The purpose of military power is to stop these random outcroppings of evil that happen around the world, perpetrated by irredeemable bad guys who do it because they are just bad.” But that isn’t what is happening in Syria at all. Not to say that Al-Assad is a nice guy, but it is a complex set of circumstances that brings out the atrocious behavior on all sides — and in these circumstances, we in the West are playing a huge role. Focusing on the gas attack diverts attention from that.

Q: What do you think about the rise and empowerment of Al-Qaeda in Syria which is funded, armed and supported by the United States and its Arab allies in the region? The United States government launched the project of War on Terror less than a decade ago in order to eradicate Al-Qaeda, but is now supporting it overtly both militarily and financially. Isn’t this approach somehow hypocritical and duplicitous?

A: Certainly, but let’s look deeper. Some critics of Obama in the U.S. do use the argument your question suggests by saying, “If we support these Al-Qaeda affiliated rebels, they will turn against U.S. interests after they gain power.” This argument takes for granted (1) that if only they weren’t affiliated with Al-Qaeda, it is OK to arm and aid rebels against other governments — but what would we think if Iran were doing the same to anti-government rebels in the U.S.? (2) That the main consideration in this matter is “U.S. interests.” Well, what are U.S. interests? Most Americans have no clue what that is supposed to mean beyond an infantile good guy/ bad guy narrative. Of course, when you look into what it really means in practice, usually it is U.S. corporate interests. It comes down to economic power. For example, in the case of Syria there is the issue of who controls natural gas pipelines into Europe: the United States, or Russia. So behind the whole debate is an unexamined narrative of geopolitics as some kind of big chess game in which the interests of the great powers are fundamentally opposed. It is a narrative of contending nation-states. Until that narrative changes, we are always going to have situations like Syria. I don’t want to sound naive here, but what about the “universal brotherhood of man?”

I think many leaders, though not so much in the United States, are starting to see it this way. The Russians and Chinese, for example, are according to some observers more worried about the destabilizing effects of a U.S. war in Syria than they are about contending for their narrow interests. It is not that they are being altruistic; they are merely recognizing that in a tightly interconnected world, the good of one is the good of all. The United States needs to learn that too; for example, to learn that there is always blowback; that what we do to the world we do to ourselves. This is a new paradigm that echoes the awakening of ecological consciousness. As we do to the world, we do to ourselves.

Q: There have been video footages of the atrocities of the foreign-backed mercenaries and rebels in Syria who mercilessly kill the civilians and even sometimes take out their body organs and eat them. Some independent observers have noted that the operations of the rebels in Syria constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. If this is the case, then why haven’t the international organizations, like the Security Council, taken any action to condemn, stop or at least scrutinize these war crimes?

A: Probably because there has not been much political pressure or incentive to do so; usually governments profess outrage over “war crimes” when it serves their (self-perceived) political interest.

Usually the response to atrocities like these, on a gut emotional level, is to want to smash someone. We see the perpetrators as irredeemably evil monsters. Certainly, there are circumstances where people need to be stopped by force. But that reflexive response ignores the context for the atrocities. Are the problems of the world caused by bad people who need to be crushed? Or do people do bad things when they are in a certain situation? If it is the latter, then we can go around crushing the villains for another thousand years and nothing will change. The subtext behind atrocity reports is, “see, they are horrible. Now we know whom to crush.” Absent, then, is any consideration of the social, economic, and cultural factors that generate conflict.

And usually these factors implicate the very people who are making the judgments of evil. In the case of Syria, for example, we are ignoring the role of neoliberal “reforms” in causing hardship and discontent.

Q: The U.S.-Russian agreement on September 14 that sets a framework for the declaration and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons is a positive and constructive step forward. But again, it lacks the essence of impartiality and justice. If Syria should not have any chemical weapons, the same should apply to Israel, which is said to possess large stockpiles of chemical and nuclear weapons. Israel, however, is immune to inspection and investigation because it is a U.S. ally. Isn’t this an unjust and biased mechanism that leads to the exercising of double standards?

A: This has always been obvious to leftists, but I think it is becoming increasingly obvious to the world that the United States usually applies international law only to other countries, not itself or its protectorates. The U.S. has even used chemical weapons such as white phosphorus and Agent Orange itself. And certainly, everyone knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. “International law” is actually naked power in the guise of law.

I don’t think that this is because Americans are bad people. They have, for the most part, a nearly unshakable belief in their country as the unquestionable champion of freedom and democracy that can show the world how it’s done. Therefore, whatever America does is right by definition. At most, liberals might say that we sometimes make mistakes, but they rarely question the basic premise: America = Good. In other words, Americans and their politicians are caught up in a story. That story is falling apart, however, as the American social and economic fabric unravels, and on a deeper level, the validity of the nation-state as the primary unit of collective self-interest pales in the face of the ecological crisis.

The narratives of our political elites aren’t functioning as well as they used to. The fear of Al-Qaeda, for example, or of Islam, is much more superficial than the fear of communism during the Cold War. The reasons we Americans are given for striking Syria are not persuasive, because there is no compelling narrative on which to scaffold them.

I want to add here that America’s behavior is not exceptional in the history of empires. For centuries or millennia, it is the most powerful country that has made the rules and broken them at will. Here in this interview I sound highly critical of America, but really America is just playing a role created by the invisible narratives that have ruled our world. Directing hatred at America is just as misguided as directing hatred at whoever launched the poison gas attack, because it ignores the larger context.

American leaders are trapped in a story as I have described, but that story is itself embedded in larger stories –  you might even call them mythologies, about human nature and even the nature of reality. Ultimately, we will have peace on earth only when we are liberated from narratives such as: (1) The best way to be secure is to exercise as much control over others as possible; (2) Human beings are motivated primarily by self-interest; (3) The reason people do bad things is that they are bad people; (4) Competition is the driving force in nature, society, and among nations — what is good for the Other is bad for me; (5) Conflicts are a contest of right versus wrong, good versus evil.

Ultimately even these draw from Newtonian mechanics, Cartesian metaphysics, and genetic determinism, all of which are obsolete. These tell us, respectively, that change happens only through the application of force, that to exist is to be a separate self among other separate selves, and that nature consists of hostile competing with others. Just as the scientific foundation of these beliefs is changing, so also is the consciousness of the modern world. The ecological crisis in particular is compelling us to see that we are all connected, that we are all in this together. The Internet is also making it harder to insulate ourselves from the suffering and the humanity of those we had categorized in dehumanizing ways. I mention all this not to escape into philosophy, but to suggest that we may be at a turning point. We should think, “What kind of solution to the conflict draws from fundamentally new paradigms and possibilities?”

Q: The public around the world is against any unilateral military intervention in Syria. It has been proved with massive demonstrations and public protests in different countries, especially in Europe and the United States. Is the public opposition to war against Syria going to have any impact on the decision the politicians in the U.S. and Europe will make?

A: I hope so. If the American public had been in favor of a war, I doubt whether the Russian proposal would have stopped it. And if America’s European allies, particularly the British, had been enthusiastic about it, again I think it would have happened. Public opposition may not have a direct effect in the attenuated democracy we live in today, but it changes the climate in which these decisions are made.

Q: The United States officials had categorically announced that they would be launching “limited” and “surgical” attacks on Syria, and even had set the timetable for it. But the Russian proposal ruffled feathers in Washington and held them back. Isn’t this retreatment from the war rhetoric against Syria a diplomatic failure for the United States and its NATO, Arab allies?

A: I suppose in narrow terms it was a failure. But ultimately it would be to no one’s benefit to have launched a bombing. Not the United States’, not NATO, not even Israel. Perhaps instead of seeing it as a failure, we can say that the U.S. is taking its first step in adapting to an interconnected world.

Imagine a schoolyard bully beating up other kids with his gang. He is the king of the playground. But finally the other kids stop letting him dominate them, and even his gang doesn’t want to help him anymore. Is he worse off, really? He is if another bully emerges and dominates him – and maybe that’s what he’s most afraid of. But what if all the kids decide the age of bullying is over?

That is where the world needs to go. It isn’t that a new imperial power will emerge to supplant the United States. We have to promote a radically different conception of national interest, one that isn’t about domination. As it stands today, the notion of “U.S. interests” is toxic. Certainly, America’s domination of the world financial system and the natural resources of other countries enables its citizens to live a comparatively affluent lifestyle, to enjoy a high per-capita GDP, but under closer scrutiny one finds that it isn’t actually making us very happy. Not only do at least half live in constant financial insecurity due to the polarization of wealth, but even among the affluent, even among the famous one percent, life is devoid of community, purpose, meaning, and so on. Just look at suicide rates, depression, anxiety, mental illness. It’s a fools game. I think that as long as we accept, uncritically, terms like “national interest” and concepts like GDP, we risk validating the conceptual basis of war.

Q: What’s your prediction for the future of the civil war and crisis in Syria? Of course the ongoing violence and bloodshed will continue if the foreign forces maintain their illegal presence in Syria. How is it possible to change the situation in favor of the people of Syria who have been deprived of peace and tranquility for almost 3 years now?

A: I don’t have a prediction, but I would like to hold out the possibility for something extraordinary to happen in Syria, something that could serve as inspiration and example to other regions of conflict. What if the world decides to make Syria an experimental nursery of peace? What if all nations support nonviolence, starting with an immediate ceasefire? What if the Syrian government is compelled to allow 20,000 peacekeepers into the country from all nations, armed with cameras and not guns? What if all concerned parties agreed to let go of their assumptions about the other side and held peace and reconciliation committees like South Africa? What if religious leaders declared Syria a peace zone? After all, Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace, as is Christianity.

In case such suggestions sound naive, let us remember that it would have been equally naive to assume that South Africa wouldn’t explode into a racial bloodbath post-Apartheid or, to take a hackneyed example, that the Berlin Wall would fall practically overnight without a fight. In a way they are naive or unrealistic – but anything radically precedent-breaking is unrealistic in the beginning. The failure of the United States to start another imperialistic war could mark a turning point in which the usual assumptions about what is realistic become inoperative.

Anyway, we certainly need to move past, “Which side should we support?” and “What is in our national interest?” and the framing of America and its “adversaries.” We need to move past seeing the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. Even turning those categories on their head, as many American leftists do when they name the U.S. and Israel as the bad guys still preserves the basic thought form behind nearly all wars. So, yes, pursue a negotiated peace as a first step, but let’s work on the foundation of peace too on every level.

This interview was published on Iran Review and Counter Currents websites.