We’re brought up to think of evil as something manifested in monstrous figures and their deeds. What we find harder to accept is that evil – profoundly immoral actions and outcomes – can just as easily result from the behaviour of entirely ordinary people. Even otherwise good people. Often, what makes this possible are relations or systems of power. Empires are one such example.
In his seemingly total incapacity for human empathy or kindness, Donald Trump fitted the description of a monster very well. A persona that came across as almost a self-caricature at first, revealed itself over subsequent years to be something authentically dark. Those who have feared Trump and Trumpism have been right to. The fact he has been voted out of office is far from a trivial matter. The world is demonstrably safer as a result.
Sympathetic media coverage of Joe Biden portrays him in direct contradistinction with his predecessor. His diligent attention to expert advice on the Covid-19 pandemic is contrasted with Trump’s oscillations between blithe disinterest and aggressive denialism. Biden’s pleas for national healing are contrasted with Trump’s serial acts of societal arson. Above all, Biden’s sense of empathy, deepened through a series of profound personal losses, is contrasted with Trump’s chilling lack of humanity. These narratives feed powerfully into the widespread sense of relief at Biden’s election win.
And yet, profoundly immoral outcomes, evil outcomes, will continue to result from US imperialism under a Biden presidency, just as they did long before Trump came to power. This reality is almost banal. But it is urgent, precisely at the moment when the world exhales at Trump’s departure, that we face up to the fact, and urge others not to look away from it.
In September this year, the New York Times reported a conclusion reached by US state department lawyers that top government officials could be charged with war crimes for their role in enabling the Saudi bombing of Yemen. The Saudi campaign had involved widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets, together with a blockade that contributed to tens of thousands of Yemenis dying of starvation or preventable disease. Infant children were disproportionately represented among the dead. 85,000, according to one estimate.
This state department legal memo had been issued in 2016. Not under the Trump presidency, but during that of Barack Obama, when Biden was vice-president. It was Obama administration officials that were likely guilty of war crimes for a sustained period of nearly two years before Trump took the helm. It goes without saying that under both administrations, the buck (morally, and perhaps legally) stops in the White House itself.
Beyond this striking, current example, it is unnecessary to reel off the list of wars, coups and indiscriminate sanctions regimes imposed by Democratic and Republican administrations alike on civilian populations around the globe. It suffices to remind ourselves that this is what empires are, in the end. International systems of violence too vast and too enduring to be staffed or led by monsters alone, or even for the most part.
The greatest system of violence and exploitation today, global capitalism, has for 30 years now been driving us steadily toward the cliff edge of climate breakdown, even as the scientific realities have been universally understood. For the vast majority of those 30 years, the powerful figures in business and government who have failed or refused to tackle the problem have not been monsters like Trump, but ordinary centrist liberals like Biden. As things stand, it is they who future historians will hold primarily responsible for the end of this phase of human civilisation.
Even in the most obvious and extreme cases, evil needs more than an alibi. It needs a good story to tell. Trump has shrouded his own monstrousness in an elaborate fantasy where he stands as a pristine, heroic martyr beset on all sides by persecutors and liars. It’s a story he has interwoven with wider discourses of white nationalist paranoia, drawing a participating audience of tens of millions, ready to explain away his every heinous act. Stories are powerful things.
The power of liberalism, in its long marriage with the destructive forces of capitalism and empire, is that its story is capable of appealing to the best rather than the worst within us. It is a positive story, of freedom, prosperity, progress, enlightenment and good deeds, which has consistently won lasting consent for the prevailing order among deep layers of the population.
Nor is it a story that can be dismissed as entirely false. Liberalism is not merely a veneer or a sales pitch. It is shaped by capitalism, in terms of its skewed emphasis on property rights, and by imperialism, in terms of its frankly sentimental view of western state power. But it shapes those systems in return, ensuring a degree of democracy and liberty in the imperial metropole, and setting some political limits on what these systems of power can get away with.
What is pernicious is the way liberalism’s ostensibly enlightened values can dovetail with uglier ideological impulses when the needs of the system demand it. For example, a consistent feature of liberal capitalism for over two hundred years has been the contrast between democracy in the metropole and various forms of violence and tyranny in colonial and post-colonial spaces. This has been rationalised by the laundering of crude racial prejudice through more appealing notions of ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’. Those backward peoples deemed to be in need of such gifts have had wars and colonial or client governments imposed on them, as much for their own good as for that of the coloniser, or so the story goes. In the modern era, these old stories have proven easy to update, and remain convincing.
The challenge for the left under a Biden presidency is to tell our own persuasive story of evil without villains. It is to make the case that decent-seeming politicians subscribing to familiar, decent values will pursue seriously dangerous policies unless subjected to pressure and critique. It is to confront a system whose power lies not only in its means of profit-making and violence, but also in its means of ideological legitimation and consensus-building.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.