Alex has a big problem. Since his earliest years he has been addicted to a potent combination of sex and violence. When he hangs out with his friends, their favorite activity is to break into people’s houses and terrorize them. But that’s actually not Alex’s big problem. That comes later, when he’s apprehended by the state and subjected to an extreme form of aversion therapy that makes him physically sick whenever he sees or contemplates violence. Worse, at least for Alex, is that he is repulsed by the art that once soothed his savage breast.
“These doctors,” Alex reflects on a visit to a music store, “had so fixed things that any music that was like for the emotions would make me sick just like viddying or wanting to do violence. It was because all those violence films had music with them. And I remembered especially that horrible Nazi film with the Beethoven Fifth, last movement. And now here was lovely Mozart made horrible.”
Perhaps you remember Alex. The word “viddying” might also give away the passage. To create the argot of Alex and his droogs, Anthony Burgess drew on his knowledge of Russian (vidits is Russian for “to look” while podrugi means “friends”). His 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, which Stanley Kubrick turned into an equally infamous movie the following decade, is a terrifying vision of the future.
But as Burgess points out in a recently republished article in The New Yorker, the terrifying part had little to do with the thuggish violence that Alex liked to inflict with a Beethoven symphony playing in the background. The terrifying part was the state’s newfound ability to intervene in individuals’ lives and chemically change their behavior. In this way, the state robs individuals of their freedom of choice. Take away Alex’s violent streak and you’re only a step or two away from social-engineering everyone into the equivalent of Stepford wives.
“What I was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will,” Burgess writes, “than to be good through scientific brainwashing.”
Burgess had in mind, in that distant Cold War era, the twin threats of Stalin and Skinner. Soviet-style communists believed in the perfectibility of humanity, the creation of a “new man” or homo Sovieticus who transcended the selfish personality flaws of Mankind 1.0. For the behaviorists who followed B. F. Skinner, meanwhile, humans could likewise be prodded with carrots and sticks toward behaving with greater humanity. Rather than permit humans to frolic in the wild, both Stalinists and Skinnerians treated human beings like so much Play-Doh to be shaped and modeled according to their plans and prejudices.
Burgess rejected this twin line of thinking. He was, by instinct, a libertarian. His depiction of the society in which Alex and his droogs run amok is an extreme version of the “nanny state” that preoccupies so many Americans. The anti-nannies fear not the repressive machinery of no-good authoritarians but the therapeutic ministrations of do-good liberals. So, for instance, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia worried, during the debate on the health care reform law, that Americans would soon be forced to eat broccoli as the logical consequence of being forced to buy health care. In New York City, carbonated libertarians fret about the mayor’s office preventing access to huge tubs of soda.
Burgess is a strict non-interventionist on these matters. “The modern state, whether in a totalitarian or a democratic country, has far too much power, and we are probably right to fear it,” he writes. Yes, the state should tell us what not to do (murder, reckless driving). But, following Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, it should not tell us what to do. The state should not force us to be good.
It’s a supreme irony that those who are so concerned about the arrogation of state power, when talk turns global, suddenly become great boosters of the very same state. George Will, for instance, in a recent article on the International Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), ridicules the notion that the United States should abide by something that 162 other nations have already signed and that was revised in 1994 to eliminate precisely the elements the United States had opposed. Will, of course, doesn’t want the United States to cede authority to any global body, even though the U.S. business community, the Pentagon, and the State Department are all behind ratification. Will quotes the intellectual heavyweight Donald Rumsfeld to the effect that the treaty “remains a sweeping power grab that could prove to be the largest mechanism for the worldwide redistribution of wealth in human history.” There is an echo here of Burgess, who would surely disapprove of social engineering at such a vast scale.
Parenthetically, the treaty would, alas, do no such thing. As Stewart Patrick counters at The Atlantic:
One enduring shibboleth is that the International Seabed Authority (ISA) created under UNCLOS is an unaccountable supranational bureaucracy that will defy U.S. wishes and redistribute undersea wealth to developing countries. This is pure nonsense, since the United States is the only country guaranteed (if it accedes to the treaty) a permanent seat on the ISA, a body that takes decisions by consensus -- giving the United States an effective veto over its decisions. It is true that the ISA collects royalties for deep sea mining, but these remain extremely modest -- as one would expect from an arrangement that was effectively negotiated by U.S. oil companies.
The irony extends to matters of security as well. The same neoconservatives who are so eager to dismantle state power within the United States -- through privatization and deregulation -- have been equally eager to use state power to intervene in the affairs of other countries. A liberal interventionist is at least philosophically consistent. But conservative hawks have always made a national security exception not simply to defend the country but to support Pentagon socialism and meddle overseas.
Which brings us to Syria. Bashar al-Assad and his government have indeed been behaving like Alex and his droogs. A Beethoven soundtrack doesn’t accompany their rampage, but much has been made of the elegance that his wife Asma brought to his administration (Vogue removed its infamous profile of her from its website, but you still can read it here). Talk of intervention into Syria to remove Assad has ramped up recently. The British government effectively halted a Russian shipment of arms to Syria when the ship rounded Scotland, a move that one British newspaper called a further step toward military intervention. More ominously, Turkey invoked Article 4 of the NATO charter after Syria downed one of its fighter jets on Friday. Article 4 calls for consultation among NATO allies if a member’s “territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened."
I don’t think that anyone, even Anthony Burgess if he were still alive, would oppose intervention on the grounds that it would be better for Assad to be bad of his own free will than forced to be good through international pressure. This Clockwork Orange argument doesn’t make sense at a global level. Still, Burgess’ warning about the dangers of intervention holds an important lesson: There are unintended consequences. Delete the violence and you may end up deleting the higher functioning as well. The U.S. invasion of Iraq not only deposed Saddam Hussein, removing the prime mover of violence in that society, but also destroyed the capacity of the society to function. The intervention crippled the Iraqi state and its many institutions. The center did not hold, and things fell apart. Recent suicide bombings in Iraq that killed more than 100 people are a painful reminder of the ongoing chaos. “The attacks this week demonstrated just how insecure life in Iraq still is,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Dan DePetris in Carnage in the Streets of Iraq, “even if overall violence in the country is at an all-time low since 2003.”
Burgess’ radical individualism is appealing at one level. Our literature is full of examples of the individual who rebels against the state, social conformity, scientific dogma, suffocating rationality, and so on. But we don’t have to believe in the perfectibility of humanity to recognize that a democratic state can make incremental improvements in the lives of the majority through positive inducements (and not simply the negative reinforcement of the police and the courts). State agents don’t round us up for chemical realignment. But the state provides positive inducements to drive fuel-efficient cars, buy houses, make charitable donations. In other cases, the state intervenes in the economy to ensure greater liberty for all -- poor people to get by, sick people to get well, the unschooled to get education. It doesn’t force us to do any of these things. But we are nudged in those directions and many others.
Burgess worries about the slippery slope that leads to dystopia ruled by little Stalins or mini-Skinners. But there is an equally worrisome slippery slope that runs from the radical individual to Anders Breivik, who takes up arms to fight against what he considers to be an unjust society. Breivik took aim at the agents of social conformity -- to his mind, multiculturalism -- when he killed 77 people affiliated with Norway’s Labor Party. "History shows that you have to commit a small barbarism to prevent a bigger barbarism," Breivik concluded in his own defense when his trial concluded on Friday. When Burgess writes approvingly of a man “willing to suffer torture and death for the sake of a principle,” the sentiment can apply equally to Nelson Mandela or Anders Breivik.
Americans live in a messy democratic society that is neither a Skinnerian nanny state nor a loose confederation of radical individuals. We debate every social intervention on its own merits, not based on a rigid principle that all such policies are good or evil. The same should hold true for intervention overseas. Right now, I’m with Burgess: beware the consequences. But if Assad and his droogs resist all non-military efforts to make them behave, and the killing becomes a one-sided genocide, I’ll be open to alternatives.
“Syria could provide a test case for a new approach to intervention,” writes FPIF blogmeister Russ Wellen in My Non-Intervention Problem. “Instead of thinking in terms of halting a repressive and murderous regime, which is a punitive act, focus instead on incentives -- but not just to the regime. Also dangle incentives to the insurgents, as a way to identify the so-called good guys and force bad actors among them to mend their ways.” We don’t have to be a nanny state to use effective nanny tactics.
In the end, I hope that Assad winds up at The Hague, forced to listen to all the testimony of the atrocities his regime committed. That would be an entirely fitting form of aversion therapy, one that even Anthony Burgess might have condoned.