Opinion: 9/11 and the makers of history

Published on Al Jazeera, by Tarak Barkawi, September 6, 2011.

After 9/11, the administration of US President George W Bush initiated the era of the global war on terror. For many, this was a misguided response to terror attacks. But before the decade was over, US forces invaded two countries and are now fighting shadow wars in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, while an air war continues in Libya. Pentagon commands cover the entire planet, and US military assistance programmes are active in almost every country.  

Wars reorder politics and values. They remake that which is taken to be true and right. They render the world unrecognisable from what it was when the balloon went up. That is why epochs of world history are so often marked off by the dates of wars. How should we understand the era of 9/11? In what historical timeline does it belong?

It is useful to begin by recalling some of what seemed true on September 10, 2001. The US enjoyed the unquestioned global supremacy of the “unipolar moment”. The “end of history” beckoned, in which liberal democracy and free markets promised peace and prosperity everywhere for all time. The West and its international organisations managed the world, ultimately for the general good. Globalisation was bringing people closer together.

Today, each of these verities lies broken. The failure to understand the 1990s and the significance of the end of the Cold War has left us unable to understand what has been happening in the decade since 9/11.

Renewed global military commitments have hastened an inevitable US decline. The unrestrained power of finance capital is wrecking economies and societies across the Western world. Europe lies prostrate, bereft of anything approaching serious leadership, mired in the divisive politics of austerity and racist, anti-immigrant populism. The great international institutions have sat on the sidelines of the crises roiling the world. The communications technologies that were supposed to lead to mutual understanding instead assist revolts and terrorism, rioters and financial speculators, when they are not being used by states to spy on their own citizens, or by corporations to increase the number of consumer products people desire.

How is it that the received wisdom about the nature of world politics was so badly wrong? What did we fail to see and why? … //

The fall of the left:

The global significance of 1989, broadly speaking, was the defeat in both the North and the South of the political left, of those political movements that sought to replace, contain, or redirect the expansive energies of capital in accordance with humane values.

During the Cold War, Western powers had to maintain social welfare systems at home lest communism begin to look attractive. The Soviets, meanwhile, tried and failed to demonstrate that they too could produce washing machines, refrigerators and other consumer items. With the collapse of the USSR, neoliberalism was unleashed and could begin in earnest to do away with welfare states in the West. “Shock therapy” was delivered to the former Soviet bloc countries, while the debt crisis was used to control many economies in the global South. No longer did the West have to secure Third World allies with lavish aid.

The defeat of the left produced two outcomes which have defined the last twenty years and will continue to make history over the next twenty.

The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of the dire social consequences of unrestrained capitalism. The grievances, the injustices, the poverty, the anger, the continued reduction of everything human to the bottom line, to something that can be bought or sold, all this remained, even intensified. But now it was not the left that would make political lemonade out of these lemons, but the right; not communists, but religious fundamentalists, both Christian and Islamic. This is where the Tea Party belongs, feeding on the misdirected resentments of those devastated by unregulated capitalism.

The second outcome of 1989 is a dramatic increase in the political power of capital. Across the Western world, but most especially in the US, politicians are in hock to Big Money, while corporate media fundamentally shapes political debate.

Blinkered worldview:

The problem with this, as Karl Marx would have told us, is that while capitalists know what is in the interest of their specific business, they are unable to cooperate for the good of the system as a whole. To maintain a capitalist society of a kind anyone would want to live in requires tremendous public investment and infrastructure; a neutral, professional and active civil service; and a strong framework of effective, lawful regulation.

Few capitalists want to pay taxes for all this, or subject their industries to significant regulation. Give capitalists as a class too much political power, and they will enfeeble government with their special interests, lobbyists, and kept politicians. The consequence is the drama currently on display: the self-destruction of the West and its economies. It is plainly obvious that Western societies are in dire need of modernisation, investment, and strategies for growth and employment. But the political forces that might fight for these have long since been vanquished. Anguished experts like Paul Krugman are left accurately to foretell a doom that the political systems of the West willfully do nothing to avoid … (full text).

  • (Tarak Barkawi is a senior lecturer in War Studies at the Centre of International Studies in the University of Cambridge. He also authored the book Globalization and War (Rowman and Littlefield). He has held fellowships at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University; the Department of War Studies, King’s College London; the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University; and the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Ohio State University..
  • The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy).

My comment: today 9/11 I will not open my TV, I am too much fed up with the repetitions of all these official lies. See also lies on 9/11:

Link: Chomsky: 9/11 – was there an alternative? on Al Jazeera, by Noam Chomsky, September 7, 2011.

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