Is global capitalism in direr straits than anyone previously thought, or is it doing what it’s doing simply because it can? War mongering, national hysteria, jingoism, rampant racism, assaults on civil liberties: historically they have always accompanied intractable systemic crises, are, indeed, the system’s way of dealing with major threats, if not to its existence, then to the minimum requirements for its reproduction under fairly stable conditions.
But where is the threat? What has become of the market-driven global village, the praises of which were being sung with such abandon barely a year before the 11 September attacks, during Kofi Annan’s millennium extravaganza just a few blocks away from the ill-fated twin towers?
The Soviet Union and its “evil empire” had collapsed, not by virtue of war or nuclear holocaust, but courtesy of an implosion so pathetic as to evoke revulsion, rather than sympathy, in the hearts of all but the blindest of its one time supporters.
Well before, the “phantom of communism” had ceased haunting Europe (it was always a mere shadow of itself in North America), having stimulated as well as transmutated into social democracy’s welfare state; ironically, the very hallmark of capitalism’s “golden age.” The Reagan/Thatcher era put the lid on the welfare state; trade unionism was all but destroyed; labour became New Labour; and social democrats, when in power, had no compunction about advocating and implementing the deregulation policies their conservative adversaries had already put in place.
If anything, the fate of “the communist/socialist threat” in the Third World (which Mao had designated “the centre of world revolution”) was even more ironic. Third World communism’s greatest triumph, in Vietnam in 1975, was also its swan song. The dreaded “domino effect” was sunk in the marshes of Cambodia’s killing fields, and barely a decade was to pass before the most populous “communist” country in the world was setting itself up as international capitalism’s most promising growth market.
The wave of Third World liberation movements, which had produced a host of populist/corporatist socialisms (producing also the Non-Aligned Movement, Afro-Asian Solidarity and a certain UN clout) were to be found, repentant and hat in hand, queuing up before the doors of the IMF, the World Bank and, of course, the White House. Once triumphant liberation movements (as in defunct Zaire) were making deals with multinational corporations even before they had finished “liberating” their capital cities. And an old “dependista” theorist such as Enrique Fernando Cardoso could become president in Brazil in order to push forward the free market and greater integration into the world economy while old Stalinists could return to power in this or that eastern European country to do pretty much the same thing.
A single product is on offer for the whole world; only the size and the packaging vary.
What’s left? Al-Qa’eda, rogue states, the Muslim world and its alleged deeply-rooted cultural/civilisational antipathy to modernism? No world power in history has ever had to contend with such a sorry group of enemies.
Admittedly, the scale of the 11 September attacks, by virtue of their shockingly graphic symbolism as much as the devastating toll in civilian casualties, sent Americans crying for vengeance. But what do we really have here? An organisation of a few hundred, or even a few thousand underground militants, long-nurtured by the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence service but now hounded by the intelligence services of the whole world, including such repentant “rogues” as Sudan’s Al-Bashir and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Egyptian Jihad organisation, which seems to have provided the ideological and organisational backbone of Al-Qa’eda, was effectively crushed inside Egypt, thanks largely to an insouciant attitude towards due process and basic civil and human rights, i.e. the very same attitude that is being embraced today in defence of Western “democratic values.”
And what if a group of the world’s least industrialised, most authoritarian, corrupt and inept regimes take up or reject modernism, whatever that means? The whole question is farcical; in particular, given that Islamic fundamentalism had for decades been fostered and supported by the “modernist” West as a bulwark against communism and secularist nationalism. A state that is spending $379 billion a year on its military is supposed to be afraid of war-and-sanctions devastated Iraq and/or any of the rest of the sundry group of states designated as “evil” by an intellectually-challenged American president and his warmongering aides?
If anything, it is the absence of any real threat to world capitalism and the overpowering hegemony of its imperial centre that seems to provide the most distinctive feature of today’s world in contrast to that of two decades ago.
Yet undeniably there is anger, seething, unbearable, and growing in intensity as the avenues available for its expression shrink. Dominant systems are supposed to survive by virtue of more than mere coercion. There is supposed to be some sort of compact between the dominant and the dominated: rules of the game; a certain room for manoeuvre by the oppressed; a rationale by which they may, however grudgingly and rebelliously, accept their lot. Indeed, it is the disintegration of such compacts that, throughout history, has lent impetus to the transformation of the daily acts of resistance and subversion by the oppressed, turning them into revolutions.
What we see today is naked power, unmitigated by compacts or any semblance of reason, shameless in the flaunting of its stupidity and sheer madness. But there are no revolutions, no real rebellions, only ever-growing, ever-futile anger. And, of course, such things as a fluke but devastating attack on the twin towers, a monstrous Eid-eve butchery of a journalist, Muslims killing Copts in an Egyptian village; Hindus massacring Muslims in Ahmadabad, Muslims massacring Hindus on a train — the world of (very) late capitalism, aptly ruled over by Dubbya Bush.
Hani Shukrallah writes a column for al-Ahram.