The Next Stage of History


Lee Harris

Free Press, 2004, 232 pp.  ISBN 0-7432-5749-0


Lee Harris is a philosopher.  The title is an obvious wordplay on The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama.  Much of the book was out of my depth.  He rambles into long peculiar philosophical digressions on the development of civilization, ignoring religion and focusing on what he calls the rise of teams and the dethroning of family (tribe).  He’s openly scornful of liberals and intellectuals.  The thinking seemed pretty muddy after about the first 70 pages.


The following two paragraphs in a review by W. J. Rayment give an overview:


“He begins by proposing that all of the new wave historians proposing an end to history, based on an end of the need for war are either sadly mistaken or at least premature in their analysis. His premise is that the rise of civilized and tolerant people ultimately rewards the ruthlessness of other groups. We can see this play out throughout history in the way the Greeks allowed the Macedonians to run roughshod over them; how the Romans, softened by civilization eventually succumbed to Barbarian invasion, and even the way 1930s Europe allowed the Nazis and the Communists to aggrandize to the point of over-reaching.


It seems "civilized" society becomes so fond of the idea of tolerance, which works so well with other cultures not violently opposed to them, that they believe they can even befriend those who are determined to be their enemy. Unfortunately, the "enemy" always sees this tolerance as weakness and attempts to exploit it. This is why the policy of appeasement was such a disaster for Great Britain under Chamberlain in the late 1930s.”

W.J. Rayment / Conservative Bookstore  

accessed Dec 31, 2004


My notes:

“If 9/11 was not an act of war, then what was it?  ...9/11 was the enactment of a fantasy....”  His point is that ruthless gangs develop an ideology based on the world as they see it in their minds, a fantasy world, thus a fantasy ideology.


“This theme of reviving ancient glory is an important key to understanding fantasy ideologies.  It suggests that fantasy ideologies tend to be the domain of those groups that history has passed by or rejected—groups that feel that they are under attack from forces that, while more powerful perhaps than they are, are nonetheless inferior to them in terms of true virtue; they themselves stand for what is pure.”  (8)


“The terror attack of 9/11 was not designed to make us alter our policy but was crafted for its effect on the terrorists themselves and on those who share the same fantasy ideology; it was a spectacular piece of theater.”  “A mere handful of Muslims, men whose will was absolutely pure, as was proven by their martyrdom, brought down the haughty towers erected by the Great Satan.  What better proof could there possibly be that God was on the side of radical Islam and that the end of the reign of the Great Satan was near at hand.” (12)  “It was a symbolic drama, a great ritual demonstrating the power of Allah, a pageant designed to convey a message not to the American people but to the Arab world.” (15)


“...there is absolutely no political policy that we could adopt that would in any way change the attitude of our enemies.” (16)


“What matters is that God will bring them victory.”  “The genuine cause of all events God—God and nothing else.  If this is so, then the ‘real’ world that we take for granted simply vanishes, and all becomes determined by the will of God.  Thus the line between realist and magical thinking dissolves.” (17)


“How, in short, do we deter those who, driven by a fantasy ideology, are prepared to pointlessly sacrifice themselves to murder us?  This in turn raises the most important question: How do we defeat such ruthlessness?  And can we defeat it without becoming ruthless ourselves?”  (19)


We face a crisis of the collapse of the liberal world system that allows us to know for a near certainty what the other players will not even conceive of doing.  (24)


“If Muslim extremists continue to use terror against the West, their very success will destroy them.  If they succeed in terrorizing the West, they will discover that they have in fact only ended by brutalizing it.  And if subjected to enough stress, the liberal system will be set aside and the Hobbesian world will return, and with its return, the Islamic world will be crushed.  Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.  The only way to avoid this horrendous end is to bring the Islamic world back to sanity sooner rather than later.”  (31)


“The greatest threat facing us—and one of the greatest ever to threaten mankind—is the collision of this collective fantasy world of Islam with the horrendous reality of weapons of mass destruction....” (31)  “We now live in a world in which a state so marginal that it would be utterly incapable of mounting any kind of credible conventional threat to its neighbors or to anyone else...could still make a devastating use of a nuclear weapon that literally chanced to come into its hands.”   “In this case, the act of violence need possess only a magical or fantasy significance to the perpetrator in order to motivate him to perform it.  It need not bring him any other goal than the sense of achievement in having brought it off.” (32) 


“...if a nuclear device were to be detonated in downtown Chicago tomorrow, from an unknown source, could we really count on being able to find its ‘return address’?” (33) 


Three theories of “the enemy:”

Greedy – a rational actor seeking his economic advantage and willing to fight for it

Oppressed – someone struggling for the recognition of his equal

Overbearing – someone who seeks to force us to recognize his superior status. (38) Harris says there is a fourth category.  See below.


Prior to the Second World War.  “By refusing to take seriously the significance of the German policy of ruthlessness, liberal internationalism overlooked the possibility that such ruthlessness could be used again....”  “For while the League of Nations might have been equipped to prevent the accidental eruption of another great war, how could it be expected to handle a nation that deliberately used the threat of yet another great war as a way of obtaining its political desires?” (59)


After 9/11.  We know that terrorists are capable of using catastrophic terror, and this changes the realm of what is thinkable and what is imaginable in our time.  (60)


Nations calculate the risk before embarking on war.  They avoid the risk of total war if at all possible.  “If we may be attacked at any time by enemies who are prepared to use catastrophic terror, how is it possible to calibrate in advance the magnitude of any threat or any risk?”  “Yet this very fact is precisely what gives an enormous advantage to any party who is willing to risk death or, in Hitler’s case, total war.”  “Those who are willing to act irrationally and to take this risk will be able to force any rational player into acceding to his will.  In a world where others are willing to risk death to get their way, you must be willing to risk death to keep them from getting their way.” (63)


“In a world where everyone else is accustomed to making rational economic choices, the man who is prepared to fight to the death will normally be appeased.” (64)


“What Nazism, fascism, and Communism had in common was their refusal to play by the same rules as their middle-class and liberal opponents or even to acknowledge these rules.” (64)  “Each myth justified the use of ruthlessness by a certain select group of human beings.” (65)


It is the height of bad manners to tell someone he is lacking in civility.  “The ruthless party therefore knows that he will be able to push very far before a break point is openly acknowledged.  Because once the break point is acknowledged, all bets are off and you no longer can be sure of the next step.” (66)


“We may blame ruthlessness on someone’s religion or culture or economic status.  We never dream of identifying it for what it is—a strategy that works.”  (66)  “Ruthlessness, in short, is the fourth enemy of civilization.  Unlike the other is not one that humankind can ever evade....”  (67)


Book thesis: 

“There is one way of defending against an enemy who is prepared to use total war as a deliberate strategy of ruthlessness, and that is to have a nation whose military strength is equal or greater that is willing to use total war as a deliberate strategy against ruthlessness.”  (104)


The natural form that ruthlessness takes is the gang.  (106)


“We live in a world in which ruthlessness will triumph unless there are men who know how to deal with it effectively.  Civilized life begins to exist only when men have learned how to fight ruthlessness without succumbing to it themselves, and it only exists for as long as they remember the trick of how this is done.  This trick has been mastered by the United States.” (107)


“America, in short, must use its power, unilaterally if need be, to destroy and remove any group of people who are deliberately and consciously following a policy of ruthlessness, whether this group is a state against another state, a state against its own people, or an Al-Qaeda-like organization.” “To permit any group of this nature to decide the next stage of history is insane, and yet this is precisely what would happen if the United States were to disengage from the world.” (108)


“Ruthlessness has no root causes.  It is not engendered by poverty or illiteracy or a lack of education or the Muslim religion or the concept of jihad.  It is a technique for gaining power.  That is what it started as and what it will always be.”  (109)


“If a nation contains gangs who have acted with conspicuous ruthlessness, then it is not entitled to be considered a sovereign state.  For sovereignty, let us remember, is based on the real monopoly of violence and not merely one written into the constitution.  Therefore, any nation that can’t keep a lid on such gangs has no right to be considered a sovereign state by definition.” (110)


“What is so terrible about gang rule is not just what happens while the gang rules, but what happens after it is gone.  Witness the aftermath of the Soviet Union, and that of Iraq.  Where gangs of ruthless thugs have ruled, they have made it virtually impossible for anyone else to rule except another gang of thugs.”  “This is not an American problem but a world problem.  How do you fix communities long afflicted by ruthlessness?”  (111)


“We are now living in a world where decent and sincere men and women attack the United States for removing Saddam Hussein, the archetype of the ruthless gang leader, who brutalized twenty million human beings for three decades.”  “Those who argued that the United States should not attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq because of the sacred right of national sovereignty should perhaps remember the reputation today of those who in the past justified the property rights of slaveholders.  What is the difference, except scale?”  (112)


“In a world full of bluffers, the ruthless will rule.” (169)


“Ruthlessness is an infallible strategy to use in a world in which no one is willing to fight to the death to defend his stake in something....” (170)