He can be very funny. Sometimes intentionally so, other times not. He once said, “I cannot recognize either the Palestinian state or the Israeli state. The Palestinians are idiots and the Israelis are idiots.” His sense of fashion is completely his own. He’ll wear a pure white suit one day and then robes and animal skins the next. His military outfits sometimes seem like an outright parody of the military, as if he may, even, be trying out for the Village People. But one can never be sure how to take Colonel Muammar Qaddafi when it comes to clothing, or anything else.
The laughter sticks in the throat though when one thinks of the suffering. Qaddafi has been a dictator for a long time — 42 years, ever since he led a coup against King Idris in 1969. During that time, he was never shy about cracking down on any possible opposition. He was directly responsible for some of the more senseless acts of international terrorism in recent history (see the Lockerbie bombing of 1988). He has lorded over the corrupt economy of a country that sits on massive oil reserves but has done little to raise the general standard of living in Libya. His crimes are extensive and well documented. At the time of this writing, Qaddafi still holds power in Libya and seems resolved to drag his country into civil war and the massive violence of a “last stand.” It looks as if Qaddafi’s final end will be pathetic and tragic at once.
And yet, there is a way that he may get the last laugh. I say this because of a book Qaddafi published in 1975. It is called The Green Book. When we are all dead and gone, when the literary and political documents we find important have long since been forgotten, I suspect that The Green Book will still be around, still studied by the future historians of present times.
To understand The Green Book and the strange ideology that it contains, it helps to put Qaddafi into a bit of historical perspective. Libya had been under some form of Ottoman rule from the 16th until the early 20th century, when it became an Italian colony, passing briefly into the hands of the British until it was finally declared an independent country in 1951. It was then ruled as a monarchy, with King Idris at the helm.
Qaddafi, born in 1942, was a child of those turbulent semi-colonial times and grew — as did many of his generation — to hate the monarchy that ruled Libya after formal independence. He saw King Idris as a stooge to the West, running a corrupt regime. He saw himself as a revolutionary. He looked to Egypt. Everyone looked to Egypt in those days. That’s because Abdel Nasser was the president, and Nasser was articulating a pan-Arabism that was inspiring the post-colonial Arab world from North Africa to Central Asia. If you were a young and idealistic military officer in the Arab world in the 1950s and ’60s and did not admire Abdel Nasser, you were outside the times.
As an ideology, Nasserism was always a strange brew. There was a little Socialism. There was an appeal to Arab unity. There was a general hostility to the Western powers. Those had been the colonial powers, after all, and even after the days of outright colonialism, there was consistent Western interest in the region because of its natural resources. Nasser was also wary, though, of the Soviets. He was playing a crafty game, trying to eke out some space for the Arab nation states within the dynamic of the Cold War. And finally, of course, he had to deal with Islam, since the Arab world was predominantly (then as now) a Muslim world. Nasser would use religious language and ideas in the service of his largely secular pan-Arabic movement. Through the ups and downs, Nasser played this game of pan-Arabism extremely well. Sometimes he got his butt kicked, too, and when he finally died in 1970 it was after the massive and humiliating Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in the Six Day War of 1967.
With Nasser’s death, and with the gut-check of the Six Day War, it was a time for someone else to pick up Nasser’s hodge-podge ideology and run with it. Qaddafi saw himself as that man. And so, after leading a coup that toppled the monarchy and taking control of the Libyan state, he wrote a book. It was not to be just any book; it was to be the book that solved all political and social problems of the Arab world (and possibly the rest of the world, too). With a nod to the Little Red Book of Mao quotations that was being published by the Chinese and carried by revolutionaries throughout the world, Qaddafi colored green his book — the green of Islam — and began distributing it to anyone who would have a copy.
Qaddafi’s Green Book is divided into three major sections. Part One is titled “The Instrument of Government.” It treats the question: How ought societies to organize themselves politically in the modern world? The answer is, in short, people’s committees, a form of direct democracy that Qaddafi seems to have cribbed from Lenin’s idea of the Soviets and to have followed with roughly the same commitment to real direct democracy as Lenin did.
Part Two of The Green Book is “The Economic Basis of the Third Universal Theory.” What is the third universal theory, you ask? The third universal theory is basically Qaddafi’s third way. It is his attempt to thread the Nasserite needle and establish an economic model that is neither capitalist nor communist. It’s a form of socialism that, in borrowing from the ethics of Islam and the social practices of the Arab tribes, overcomes capitalism without falling into the purely class politics of communism. That is the idea anyway. Qaddafi does not get very specific about how such a thing would actually work.
Part Three of The Green Book is called “The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory.” Here is where Qaddafi tries to negotiate between the rival claims of family, nation, tribe, gender, etc., binding them all together into the modern state as he sees it, governed according to the Third Universal Theory. This is, perhaps, the most amusing of the three parts of The Green Book. In a paragraph sorting out the gender differences between men and women, Gaddafi seems to lose his patience and concludes with the sentence, “End of gynecological statement!” The final subsection of Part Three is a rather anti-climactic though surprising discourse on “Sport, Horsemanship, and The Stage.” And that is where The Green Book ends. The final sentence is a lament on the continued existence of boxing and wrestling, both of which strike Qaddafi as uncivilized. He says, “The more the people become civilized and sophisticated, the more they are able to ward off both the performance and the encouragement of these practices.” Fin.
The Green Book is certainly a strange document, but not really an unusual one for its time. The 20th century came in with manifestoes that proposed to redefine every aspect of existence and it went out that way, too. In art, in politics, in love, in social theory, in religion, the century-just-past abounded in theories and practices that were boldly all encompassing. I was wandering through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently and stumbled across the show “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen.” Here’s what the exhibit has to say about the modern kitchen as it was imagined in the period after World War I:
From Moscow and Prague to Brussels and Berlin, kitchens were at the core of radical projects to modernize housing and renew cities in keeping with the spirit of a new age. Whether conceived as a galley for food preparation or a collective facility outside the home, variants of the New Kitchen shared an admiration for scientific reason and utopian aspirations for a more egalitarian society. By transforming daily life at the level of the kitchen, it was argued, behavioral change and improved social well being would follow.
That is exactly the spirit in which Qaddafi wrote his Green Book: scientific reason and utopian aspirations, all in the name of a more egalitarian society. More than anywhere else, The Green Book belongs at The Museum of Modern Art, in a glass case alongside a row of Kubus Stacking Storage Containers. Qaddafi was every bit the utopian Modernist, rebuilding society from the first principles of his Third Universal Theory all the way down to more mundane matters such as what color clothing mourners should wear. Being the dictator of a nation, he got to put his theories into practice, and ruinously so. The closest a great Modernist like Le Corbusier ever got to redesigning society was building those huge housing units in cities like Marseille. Qaddafi, Green Book in hand, went to work on an entire country. Now all of Libya is like a museum exhibit of the recent past. Most Libyans want nothing more than to break out of the exhibit, to start life up again. To do so, it is almost as if they have to re-write the pages of The Green Book, since at the center of the museum exhibit that is contemporary Libya is a little book that defined its time and doesn’t want to go away. • 28 February 2011