Wrestling the Dinosaur: Reflections on the Post 9/11 Decade

The words – crisis or crisis-ridden – do not quite adequately capture the decade bookended by September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center towers fell and August 5, 2011 when the US economy was brought down to a AA+ rating from its historic AAA. Other expressions work just as well. Confusing. Obfuscating. Tragic. Each has its place. The tragedy marked by the sight of a human being throwing himself out of the windows of the WTC does not seem to compare with the image of Carlene Balderrama, a Massachusetts housewife, who killed herself when faced with foreclosure in 2008 and left a note instructing her husband to use her life insurance monies to prevent the foreclosure. And sandwiched in between are several hundreds of thousands more dead.  Iraqis and Afghanis who fell to American bullets and bombs and to internecine local battles.  Indian peasants, over 200,000 of who found in drinking pesticide, a mode of deliverance.  The scale of death from Darfur cutting through the central swath of Africa down to the Niger delta remains unrecognized simply because we can choose to ignore it.  Several thousands have died in Pakistan both due to US drone attacks and insurgent attacks on civilian populations.  The list can go on… There seems to be nothing common to all these bodies littered across the planet, except the banal tragedy of loss. And yet there might be some metaphors that bring, if not all, at least most of it, together. Such as the thrashing tail of a dinosaur fighting extinction. 

 The dinosaur is of course the United States.   The post-World War II system of American imperialism is one that is failing. There are two long term trajectories that have consistently intersected over the past four decades that constitute the death of the dinosaur. The first is a radical departure in the techniques of war. If the colonial period of conquest and dominance and the wars it produced were built around the logic of wealthy nations building large infrastructures of violence – cannons, tanks and fighter planes, armadas and aircraft carriers, missiles and nuclear bombs, then the anti-colonial resistance of the 19th and 20th centuries invented insurgency. From the early slave rebellions of Haiti all the way to the Algerian resistance 150 years later, the history of anti-colonial struggle can be seen as an extraordinary experiment in insurgency given the monopoly over the infrastructure of mass violence that the colonial powers enjoyed. But the buildup of infrastructures of mass violence continued as the primary framework of the cold war. It was Vietnam then that provided the world with the first sustained showcasing of insurgency as the preferred strategy against the “super power” infrastructure of mass violence. Thus Vietnam was not merely the first clear cut victory of insurgency over a powerful state formation but the inauguration of a permanent condition of insurgency. Insurgency grew decisively, not just in quantitative terms but qualitative generational growth in techniques – from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (mainly the Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) to the armed wing of the African National Congress/Communist Party of South Africa. Read this way, what becomes apparent is that the imperial war infrastructure of big states – either the US by itself or the imperial collective of US-Europe and Japan – had already lost the fight in as much as it was invested too heavily in the infrastructure of sustained mass violence rather than in the small but generationally innovative techniques of episodic attacks. 

The other long term trajectory – the evolution of capitalism into its current neoliberal form – has been more extensively written about and discussed. However, the specificity of what the neoliberal trajectory means when read alongside the imperialism-insurgency dynamic is not just entirely missing but worse still, often the two are assumed to be one unified phenomenon unworthy of disarticulation. If one understands neoliberalism as a spatial fix necessitated by a structural flaw in capitalism – it should also then become amply clear that the spatial fix could not have been made available without the deregulation of finance and the consequent hegemonic rise of finance capital. The underlying structural flaw of capitalism along with the vast power of finance capital necessarily means that there is no prospect of a retreat into a more national Keynesian economic formation and therefore that the contradictions within a national space, such as the one we are currently experiencing in the US, will only continue to grow. Said simply there is no fix to the US national economy and each crisis will only deepen the contradictions within the national space. The capitalist class will keep peddling the dream of economic recovery as we emerge out of a cyclical phase of recession, but there is no fix, no measure available to solve the problem of the national space. Imperialism could indeed have been a solution – and that is indeed the attempt – except that given the generational growth of insurgency and a rapidly fragmenting American dominance, imperialism has, and will continue to fail, to pull in the wealth of other regional/national spaces to resolve the crisis of the US national space. Finance capital has no specific loyalty to the US national space and it will make its margins on all sides – even as the Chinese sweep up the oil contracts in Iraq, the bankers of the world are happy to deal in commodity futures and underwrite insurance for the Chinese oil deals. And what is more – each round of big armaments based imperial adventure will only drive the national economy into further crisis as deficits grow and social services that keep a working population afloat are cut. The American national economy, not capitalism, is screwed. Capitalism is pretty happily off dealing hands in growth economies – several Asian economies, some Latin American and African economies are expected to register significant growth in the near future. 

Add to this a final twist. If the first wave of insurgencies were essentially incubated by third world anti-colonial resistance and the cold war left formations, then over the last three decades the new generational growth of insurgencies have almost entirely been produced by a rising tide of regional/national neoconservativisms. Even as the post-colonial dream of some basic equity soured across the global south, we have seen the rapid rise of a range of neocon movements. We have to acknowledge that there is almost no third world nation where the nationalist elite did not dig their claws deep into the backs of the poor and the marginalized in whose name they had sought freedom. In several cases the nationalist elite abandoned the language of liberation and re-articulated themselves within the idiom of local class, ethnic or religious loyalties and then gladly sold out the population to (western and local) capitalist interest. While each case may offer its own specific history it is critical to point out that a significant context of rising neoconservatism and its attendant ultra right insurgencies remains the internal contradictions of each of those regional/national spaces.  One could go one step further and hypothesize that many neoconservative insurgencies were sponsored by local elites or states to crush the local left. Some grew out of a ground created by the left. In a few cases ultra right insurgencies grew directly out of left-oriented formations. The  Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would, for instance, be an example of the latter. The Khalistan movement was produced out of the fertile ground of left organizing in the Punjab with state support, just as, approximately at about the same time, Sadat used the Muslim Brotherhood to smash the Egyptian left. The history of the Iranian revolution and what happened to the left within it is all too well known a story and it would not be incorrect to say that the origins of the Hamas lie in the Israeli states policy of using the former to crush the PLO.

Each such specific history, while important, also obfuscates a broad post 80s trend of rising neoconservatism and its attendant ultra right insurgencies, significantly produced out of local contradictions. It is also necessary to acknowledge that many of these ultra right insurgencies are small bands of recruits – sometimes as small as a few hundred and rarely more than a few thousand but their presence does exert a consistent further rightward drift in a local politics that is already hegemonized by a neocon frame as the ultra right insurgencies seek to secure the cultural benchmarks of society through violence.  In short then, during the same period that we in the US saw the rise of the Strausian neoconservatives who have either influenced state power or directly controlled it over the last four decades (and driven imperial adventures), there has also been a rise of a distributed neoconservative trajectory across much of the global south. The distributed and diverse Islamic neoconservative insurgencies represented by Al Qaeda or the Lashkar e Taiba, the Al Shabaab or the Jaish e Mohammad are but the latest in that trend. 

In large part, I would argue, that the US left – both the white and people of color left – have failed to incorporate these complexities into their analysis and action. The simplification of the field of left political action to a mere anti-imperialism instead of an anti-imperialism combined with solidarity has essentially worked to the advantage of the neoconservative movements across the world. One version of this simplified anti-imperialism, promoted by certain segments of the “radical” left, posits the US as the nasty imperialist (which it is) and the neocon insurgencies as anti-imperialist resistance. A much larger segment, while rhetorically different, plays the same politics out by claiming it has no understanding at all of the politics elsewhere and it proffers a self interest argument to the US population of “bring our troops home.” Both these positions effectively play straight into the hands of the US neocons as it reproduces and responds from within the Huntington framework of the (Christian) West vs Islam because they either explicitly  glorify the neocon insurgencies or, through silence, seem to tacitly do the same. A slightly different version of the above, deploys a lazy dialectic of imperialism as the primary contradiction and everything else as merely secondary. Instead, if we were to use a different frame – external vs. internal contradictions, then we would be forced into a far more complex reckoning and would be faced with the pressure to work our strategy through a constant dialog with the left on the ground in the global south. Especially in times wherein all sorts of claims of a “global left” are being made, would it not make sense for the left to be really global by placing a somewhat equal valence on the internal and the external contradictions? 

A simplified anti-imperialism has many functions. It not only allows the US left to occupy an easy ethical space but also serves to cover up the internal contradictions of the third world which only serves to weaken the local left in any of the battles on the ground that it is fighting against the conglomerate of local and international capital and ethno-religious elites. Instead, imagine this: how would a project that works closely with Afghan groups that are opposed to the parallel economy that the US runs in collaboration with local elites work? For one, it might allow us to get past media analysis as the primary mode of anti-imperialist activism. Further, it may help in bringing a range of voices from Afghanistan into US public discourse. Third, it might give us sharper targets here to attack rather than broad “Bring Back the Troops” slogans. If we truly want to help build a global left then such concrete projects  may be the only way forward. 



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