The current Bush-Cheney administration is the most right-wing government the United States has had in many years. Bush’s regime came to power in a flawed, even fraudulent, election process whose outcome was decided by the Supreme Court. Its election has been considered illegitimate, even an usurpation, by many from liberal Democrats to the far left. The new government spent its first months trying to convince people it had gravitas when its chairman, the President, found it hard to put together intelligible sentences or an understanding of the policies that were to be implemented in his name. Tax cuts for the already rich, environmental rollbacks, the abrogation of certain international treaties and a decidedly isolationist approach to foreign policy were to be the agenda.
Much has since been said about the changed posture of US imperialism after the attacks of September the 11, 2001. But trends, movements and shifts were already underway in the world that were changing attitudes among the US moneyed interests at whose behest every American administration, Democrat and Republican, act. These attitudes are based on their position internationally as the leading imperialist power in the world. That is, the national ruling class with the most penetration and ownership of the global capitalist economy, the predominate military power and the leading political and cultural force on the planet. The United States has had this leading position since it emerged on top of the heap of corpses following the end of World War II. For the next 45 years the Cold War between it and the Soviet Union guaranteed its place as it led the other large capitalist powers in their subservient roles in the common struggle against the USSR and the exploited classes.
The competition and conflict with the USSR created an equilibrium in the world that helped, despite the horrendous bloodletting and exploitation of the second half of the 20th century, to divert most challenges against the order of both blocs for fifty years. While the USSR may have been the chief competitor of US power its competition was the dynamic that ensured the American position of preeminence. The imperialists saw the struggle against the Soviet Union as existential. After the rising challenge to imperialism of the late sixties and early seventies imperialism collected itself for an offensive.
The United States, first under Carter then Reagan, was able to force the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself expending its resources in an arms race with a many times more productive American economy while aggressively intervening in proxy wars in Latin America (where it utilized military juntas in horrifically bloody repressions) and Central Asia (where it fostered Islamic fundamentalism against the secularists, nationalists and left). The collapse of the Soviet bloc and then the Soviet Union under the weight of the capitalist offensive and its own wretched bureaucracy was a generational victory for international capitalism, in many ways its biggest ever victory against the forces seeking to go beyond capitalist system. The scale of the victory[– ideologically, militarily and economically — meant that the US stood unrivaled in its dominance for the first time. Now the peoples of the world would have to define themselves by their relationships to the United States.
The forces in the world opposed to capitalism, and imperialism, whether influenced by, independent of or hostile to the Soviet Union, found themselves weakened and fractured. The US victory in the first Gulf War further demoralized and isolated the left in the post-Soviet “New World Order”. These victories combined with huge speculation in new technology markets allowed the nineties to become a brief boom time for American capitalism. The “End of History” was announced and TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) was declared by a capitalism seemingly without challenge and expanding.
The Democrats were able to elect Clinton as President of the United States proclaiming himself a moderating force in a party whose moderation on behalf of the oppressed is boundless. The United States came to use its military power with increasing frequency as the “humanitarian” interventions of the Clinton years gave legitimacy to the continuation of massive defense contracts and the existence of a large standing army. There was no “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War.
Clinton forced through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which came into effect in 1994, as the US and other ruling classes utilized the retreat of the left, the struggles of national liberation and the workers’ movement in general to push forward a neo-liberal offensive.
Neo-liberalism is the attempt to role back the gains made by working people as well as national economic protections utilized by exploited countries in the post World War II era. By systematically privatizing and degrading regulations, tariffs, environmental and labor standards, etc., the imperialists attempt to create greater flexibility for and an end to restrictions on the movement of their capital in an uphill battle to reverse the long term problem of the declining rate of profit. This meant an attack on the living standards of nearly every sector of the population in the world at a time when the capitalist pundits were declaring that the economy had never been so good.
Resistance began. Those left out of the “Roaring Nineties” began to move. The Zapatistas briefly answered NAFTA with arms in hand, declaring it a death sentence for indigenous people. Then the dramatic French public worker’s strikes in the fall of 1995. In the United States a determined struggle by the Teamsters union against United Parcel Service (UPS)showed that it was possible to fight and win something even in the heart of the imperialist monolith. In 1998 the long simmering populace of Indonesia exploded ending the particularly murderous career of Washington’s strongman Suharto. In many areas local, regional, national and international networks formed to address the concerns that had all but been ignored by the elite at their policy gatherings in summits, retreats, boardrooms, barrooms, conference calls, skiing trips, golf outings and who knows what else. By the late nineties people were posing the question: “Is this really all we can hope for?”
The answer came by way of the Seattle demonstrations and the remarkable growth in the global justice movement that has brought together activists from both the imperialist countries and the countries oppressed by them. The answer was an energetic “No!”.
This new internationalist understanding coincided with the reemergence of an heroic resistance to the “New World Order” by the Palestinian people. Clinton and Israeli leader Barak agreed on the outcome of “negotiations” to be had with the Palestinians. The culmination of the pacification process of Oslo was to be the cornerstone of the regime of Pax Americana in the Middle East. The Palestinians were presented with the not-so-generous offer of 90% of 22% of what was stolen from them to begin with, no sovereignty and no return of refugees. They refused to give up the hope of living in dignity rather than the labor camps of the Camp David Agreement.
The second Palestinian intifada erupted as the Israelis attempted to implement the US-Israel agreement by force. These two events, the Palestinian intifada and the movement heralded in Seattle, soon found themselves acting in the context of a general economic downturn adding more misery to ever more people just after capitalism had proclaimed it growth unstoppable. The US stock markets dramatically deflated, especially those bursting with ephemeral high tech “new economy” dollars. These are some of the defining events that have set the stage f or our current situation.
Bush was elected at a time when many around the world had already began to question the premise of Pax Americana and when the tenacity of the Palestinians and the resourcefulness of the global justice campaigners were succeeding in placing their issues center stage. Facing growing resistance globally and an economic downturn at home, the US ruling class found itself under increasing pressure. Though none of the movements had been able to move from a protest of the inequalities innate in the global imperialist economy to an actual challenge of its rule, the imperialists began to worry.
The right was brought to power in a series of elections in Europe and where the Social Democrats were still in power they pushed forward and sought to complete the austerity agendas set by the right. It was becoming increasingly clear that the United States could not simply deal with the world the same way it did in the early and mid 90’s. The levels of resistance, continued instability in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and notably Latin America combined with financial troubles at home meant that some were considering a radically different approach from the “smile while you steal” Clinton years. Then came September the 11th.
The attacks of September the 11th, 2001 did not change in outlook of US imperialism, rather they gave the changed outlook expanded influence, adherence and legitimacy. The world had changed 10 years earlier and the reality of that change was still in contention. The world had not yet found a new equilibrium to replace the one shattered by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. The United States, still the unrivaled military power in the world, had seen its economic and political standing continue to erode in the the 1990’s, as it faced increasing resistance. US imperialism eagerly seized the opportunity presented by September 11.
Al Qaeda could not have toppled US imperialism or global capitalism even if it wanted to. The Palestinians remained isolated, and while the acquiescence of the client Arab regimes in the face of the Israeli onslaught brought them odium, none were effectively challenged by their own people.
The global justice movement had failed to, and has yet to now, formulate what we are against. Is it neo-liberalism? Is it capitalism? Is it just the excesses of these? “Another world is possible.” But the debate on what it should be called and how to get there has barely begun. Socialism, cooperatism, anarchism, Luddism, lifestyle changes, something so amorphous that our enemies and our adherents could claim whatever they wanted by it?
Imperialism was shaken by September 11th, which had symbolically showed it to be vulnerable. But, despite the scale of its destruction and loss of life, the event was an episode in a larger context, playing the relatively minor role of causus belli.
It is in this context that we should view the Bush administration. Undoubtedly September 11th has unleashed an expansion of police powers in the US. Soon we could be back to the days of the early seventies — the days of COINTELPRO and domestic assassinations. Bush, Vice President Cheney (Cheney may in fact have more control over policy than Bush) and the people they represent have used the stifling atmosphere post-September 11th to push forward a series of hard-right initiatives domestically. The discourse of the US has moved to the right with the Democrats by and large acting as junior partners, rather than even a tepid opposition to the process (see “The War at Home” in issue 13 of Fourthwrite).
While the attacks of September the 11th led directly to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and shut down Al Qaeda camps, it wasn’t the first time the United States had engaged in war on that impoverished country. But the real prize for the ruling class was to be Iraq — Iraqi oil and the message sent by its conquest. The ability to put American troops on the ground and to take casualties in the name of “national security” has been an important conquest of the Bush administration. The aggressively interventionist, “unilateral” policies of the present US government are not the policies he was elected on, but neither are they new ideas.
The neo-conservatives of the “New American Century” were busy promoting such policies nearly a full decade before the September 11th, 2001. The confluence of events propelled them and their specific ideas into center stage. Other events may push them into the wings. What we should look to are trends and movements, not individuals and episodes. The neo-cons have played their part, and, unfortunately, they are not done playing it, but forces far greater than the neo-cons are also in play and they continue to have a greater impact.
The Bush administration has convinced very few. Rather, it has enraged the world with its arrogance, its destructive use of power, its blatantly partisan practices on the behalf of the American ruling class. It has flouted the norms of democracy, disappearing Arab and Muslim men in the black hole of federal detention, trials without juries, snooping, assassinations, torture, etc. All of these practices, incidentally, used to effect by the British in Ireland over the years. The Bushies have sought to go as far as they can go, but they have not solved their larger crisis because their crisis cannot be solved. Capitalism is incapable, despite what we were told in the 1990’s, of generalizing human happiness, let alone providing for the basic needs of the world’s people. And certainly is no guarantor of peace, but a perpetuator of war. Even in polite circles the word “imperialism” is increasingly used to define the United States. It is important that this definition be grounded in a real understanding of what that means. Imperialism is an economic system, and one not confined to the United States. A system whose underlying logic is profit for a very, very few. Imperialism is a system in need of constant expansion, without regard for the consequences of that expansion, which often means clearing room by way of a path of destruction.
But even in the best of times, when the economy is doing well enough to convince people that capitalism offers them a future, we know that every period of growth has been followed by a slump. Capitalism is the real usurpation of democracy, whether it going up or going down. The consequences of such a system are murder on a mass scale all of the time, in peace and in war. Lives are ruined incrementally through years of work, privations, dashed hopes and hollowed dreams, or all at once from an American bullet at a Baghdad roadblock or the “smart” bomb which ingeniously severs its victim’s limbs, heads and history from her or his body, her or his life.
So how does Bush fit into this framework? Is he, as some on the left have said, a fascist or a crypto-fascist? The thing about fascism is that it announces its intentions. Fascism has historically been the place that the ruling class has turned to when its rule is under extreme threat and democracy simply won’t work anymore. This is especially true in the context of workers’ and revolutionary movements that have forcefully challenged the rule of capital and failed. Democracy, the way it is practiced in capitalist countries, acts to mask the reality of the rule of the very rich and help it administer its order with the promise of social peace. This social peace is always one sided, as the class war rages all the time and almost always with the ruling class as the aggressors. Bush and Company have certainly undermined democracy, but they haven’t yet turned to the fascist alternative, though the uniforms may be pressed and hanging in the closets of some of them.
But Bush is not the only possible choice of the American oligarchy. All the leading Democrats are fully committed to the unending “War on Terrorism”, the occupation of Iraq and full support to the state of Israel as it seeks to complete the destruction of the Palestinian nation. In all probability the Democrats will seek to “out-hawk” the hawks in the run-up to the November 2004 elections. Bush may be dumped[in the next election, especially if the Iraqi resistance grows and gains more sympathy and the economy doesn’t recover.
The important thing for the movements of the last period — those campaigning for global economic justice, in solidarity with Palestine and against the war against Iraq — is to formulate a real challenge to the policies of Bush and his cabal, as well as their Democratic alter-egos. By seeking to challenge the system, rather than just the specific policies. The broader we generalize our struggles, the more we incorporate the concerns of an ever greater number of people, the more we will be able to draw from in formulating and implementing the strategy and tactics necessary to bring “Another World” into being.
Putting the Bush administration in the proper context helps us to take the long view, not defining our resistance by the episodic lurches and punctuations of a system in which lurches and punctuations are routine. The generalizing of our struggles means that the logic of our resistance goes beyond what is currently on offer and begins to be revolutionary. To be revolutionary means, in part, to take hold of history instead of being held by it. Bush is a dangerous man who may lead the world into further horrors. He and his government are undoubtedly the criminals the world views them as.
But even the United States, the most powerful imperialist nation the world has had the misfortune to host, is a product of forces not entirely within their control. Those of us who resist, build movements, study, act and seek to formulate new models of society confirm that history has, indeed, not ended. Let us seek to be, in gathering strength, a force with the ability to make history. Let us intervene in our world now with the firm conviction that the future is ours to write.
MATT SIEGFRIED writes for the Irish journal Fourthwrite, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org