You are here

How to Read September 11th

Bush's careful choice of free market phraseology betrays the extent to which Islam has come to occupy the same zone of threat in American consciousness that communism once did.
Joel Schalit

Issue #58, December 2001

The most important political legacy of the 1990s is the popular reemergence of progressive anti-market sentiment. This sentiment took the form of the well-organized anti-globalization movement that was powerfully expressed in Seattle in 1999 and in Genoa in 2001. Anti-globalization is largely a consequence of economic restructuring and radically increased divisions between rich and poor under the auspices of the New Economy. It is also partially a product of the de-coupling of anti-capitalism from anti-communism since the end of the Cold War. This new anti-capitalism first started to make itself known to the world at the very end of the decade, at the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in December of 1999. This protest against economic and political globalization historically crystallized a new chapter in anti-market sentiment that had begun to take its first post-Cold War form in the communiques from Chiapas rebellion leader Subcommandante Marcos. He introduced criticism of globalization and neo-liberalism to the left as new conceptual categories for progressives to rationalize social injustice and economic inequality.

It is still too early in the life of the post-Cold War left to even begin its history. Yet the events of September 11 have made many political progressives fear that the cultural momentum against the market ignited by the anti-globalization movement may have come to an abrupt end. The critique of global capitalism has suddenly been usurped by market critics of a completely different kind, religious fundamentalists instead of Indians who read Marx. To quote the words that President George W. Bush uttered as he assessed the significance of America's reconciliation with Russia since September 11, "we have now officially left the post-Cold War era."

George W. Bush's comments may seem to have little relevance to a discussion of the health of post-1989 anti-market culture. But such official sentiment is tremendously important to take into account, because it signals the first official nation-state break with the anti-communist cultural rhetoric so significant in quashing open criticism of the free market during the Cold War. Even though we have had peaceful relations with Russia for the last ten years, as demonstrated by our cooperation over the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia (never mind that the Russian military blamed the U.S. for the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine last year), the U.S. has continually found itself in the position of heading off potential conflicts with Russia over Cold War-era spheres of influence. Now that the U.S. is facing the same threat by Islamic militants that Russia has had to contend with in Chechnya, we are free to cooperate with our former enemy in pursuit of a common foe that threatens a shared economic apparatus. This foe, lacking an identifiable alternative economic program to that of the free market, simply seeks to "shatter confidence in the world economic order to turn the global economy against itself," as Bush himself describes their agenda.

Bush's careful choice of free market phraseology betrays the extent to which Islam has come to occupy the same zone of threat in American consciousness that communism once did. Once again, the West (which now includes Russia) is faced with another serious challenge to its economic ideology, which, from a globalized perspective, is also the sole presiding political ideology that unites the rest of the globe against the subaltern world of Islamic fundamentalism. However, unlike its predecessor, state socialism, the threat posed to the free market by this kind of religiosity is not grounded in an alternative economic worldview. To the extent that it offers a distinct economic perspective, the fundamentalism espoused by terrorists like Osama Bin Laden and his contemporaries in Islamic Jihad (such as Hezbollah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood) has no critique of market economics other than the sense that the distribution of wealth in the Middle East is unequal, and serves the interests of colonial powers like the United States and the Arab elites who service them. The Islamic fundamentalist economic perspective is defined by a critique of colonial economic relations, not a critique of the market writ large. While this kind of political economy does bear historical and ideological affinity with Cold War-era socialist criticisms of market colonialism, this is as far as the comparison may hold.

Yet Islamic fundamentalism is not without its own economic meaning. As a form of cultural identity, it reflects a particular set of economic relationships for which the West bears a degree of responsibility. If we are to take the ideological complexity of globalization seriously, it could legitimately be argued that such forms of religious identification are the alienated consequences of the present division of world power in domestic guise. The deep economic meaning of such cultural identities presents as a symbolic manifestation of the collective subjectivity that is produced by a world where free markets and liberal democracies are forms of mystification that disguise a growing geographic discrepancy between permanent haves and have-nots. This symbolism is not lost on political cultures such as the one represented by the Bush administration. That's because the worldview of such political cultures can also be read as fundamentalist, given its deep faith in the just distributive power of the free market and its sense of unfettered manifest destiny. If religion remains a mystified reflection of unequal property relations, then the American version of this equation espouses a form of transcendence that is grounded in a hyper-modern state of capitalist development, in which America's current place in the world is the outcome of a set of post-nation-state economic relationships.

police state picture!Western fear of the economic challenge posed by Islamic fundamentalism is thus extremely well-founded. Such fear represents a demystified sense of the "clash of civilizations" (read religions), which both "sides" view this world war as being about. As a result of this clash of civilizations, Islamic fundamentalists have become the most recent historical manifestation of organized anti-capitalism, seeking to paralyze the American economy by attacking its financial centers. But the unconscious exchange between the two "sides" (of the economic origins of their worldviews) stops right there. In their addiction to an ancient dialectic of revolutionary violence and colonial defense through the conduct of war, both parties continue to demand of each other participation in a highly reified discourse. This discourse prohibits any movement to a higher level of dialogical consciousness that would allow each party the opportunity to uncover the roots of their own violent pathologies.

Instead, any impulse for transparent dialogue is ritually displaced into domestic disputes about matters such as fidelity to the nation state during times of conflict. Or, as with the decades-long struggle to uncover communist conspiracies within the United States, an attempt to narratively construct an artifical enemy within. An internal scapegoat, by virtue of perceived ideological affinity with the enemy, then becomes the long lost discursive partner that our unpunishable, silent opponents can never be. Thus, in historical emergencies like these, the need to legitimate our country's foreign policy turns into a highly complex internal dialogue where every single bit of national insecurity and guilt we might feel is turned violently inward, in search of those parts of the domestic political body that give voice to our own guilty national conscience. These people, traditionally the left — or those in the opposition who suggest such a political identity — inevitably become objects which the state can project its ideological frustration onto with all of its intellectual might and paranoid fear of its own very real moral transgressions. The recent passage of the so-called Anti-Terrorism bill, which strips all U.S. citizens of many basic rights and protections, is the most current example of the jaws of state turning inward.

The post-Cold War left has only just begun to learn the depth of its current crisis. Perhaps if international governing and financial bodies and multinational corporations had taken seriously the protests that swept America and Europe in the past two years, they might have found that the historical urgency expressed by the anti-globalization movement was an indirect warning about September 11. The anti-globalization activists were informed by new global media, they were angry about increasing income discrepancies during a time of general prosperity, and they had been acculturated to a new, hybrid, sense of post-traditional identity fostered by corporate multiculturalism. And they were taking a moral inventory of the First World. Given these new facets of Western society, it was not hard for them to put pieces together and anticipate the worst of all possible historical futures. The activists represented an increasingly cosmopolitan citizenry that is struggling to interpret the political ramifications of Western hyperpower, and is anticipating the kind of reaction that hyperpower will eventually elicit from a permanently disenfranchised Third World.

The Bush administration has not yet chosen to spell out any perceived ideological affinity between Islamic fundamentalism and the anti-globalization movement. Whether or not they choose to do so will depend on the degree to which this new political constituency channels its reformist energy and organizational infrastructure into a new anti-war movement. The people and organizations responsible for the protests in Seattle in 1999 and in Genoa in 2001 have the chance to reach out to a more middle class constituency and further educate the public about the relationship between globalization and the war in Afghanistan. If that happens, the government may develop a Cold War-style mythology of ideological affinity to undermine popular protest against the conflict. All they would have to do is invoke the parallels between Islamic and leftist critiques of colonialism, and quite possibly point out the left's lingering predilection towards cultural relativism (i.e. what about the Taliban's treatment of women? or the fact that the Taliban is intolerant of religious pluralism?). They may try to demonstrate that the beliefs and actions of American progressives are somehow consistent with the events of September 11.

Unfortunately, the first clue has already been found in Italy. Within two weeks of the September 11 attacks, Italian security forces staged a massive crackdown on anti-capitalist organizations associated with the G-8 demonstrations in Genoa. Throughout the country, police raided squats and the offices of activist organizations, carting off computers, flyers and photographs, and arresting anarchists under emergency anti-terrorism laws dating back to the grim old days of the 1970s. Postings to Italian websites such as GenoaResistence.Org (sic) contend that over 100 raids were staged on Tuesday, September 18th alone. The raids were the result of a state prosecutor's investigation into the bombings of a church, a cathedral, and a carabinieri station over the past two years in Milan.

Just a few days after the 18th, sensing that the public might be susceptible to associating anti-market sentiment with the forces that took out the World Trade Center, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi followed up his security forces' actions by making the first public connection between the anti-globalization movement and Islamic fundamentalism. Still reeling from the international embarrassment over his forces' abuses of protesters at the G-8 Summit in Genoa, Berlusconi was meeting in Berlin with the German and Russian heads of state when he was quoted as stating that he saw "a singular coincidence between this action (the WTC/Pentagon attacks) and the anti-globalization movement." To further substantiate this comparison, Berlusconi added that the Islamic guerrillas who carried out the attacks were attempting "to stop the corrupting effect of Western civilization on the Islamic world," whereas "the anti-globalization movement criticizes, from within Western civilization, the Western way of life, trying to make Western civilization feel guilty."

From now on, with the world at war, the stock market going haywire, and the specter of a worldwide recession making itself increasingly evident, it will be very difficult to be regarded as an economic progressive without being seen as ideologically complicit with the so-called "enemy," the Islamic world. At the same time, there are numerous historical and political resources that can be drawn upon in order to avoid being morally conflated with terrorists who engage in the mass execution of civilians. To risk pointing out the obvious, there is no comparable level of cultural affinity between the anti-globalization movement and the Muslim world in the denominational sense that characterized the relationship between pro and anti-Soviet anti-capitalists during the East — West conflict.

As Slavoj Zizek tells Doug Henwood in a forthcoming interview in Punk Planet, Western critics of globalization are "reproaching this globalization for being too exclusionary, not a true globalization but only a capitalist globalization," whereas religious fundamentalists are engaged in an entirely different kind of counter-hegemonic struggle. They embrace a cultural and linguistic definition of the state that views Western capitalism, with its international media and mass culture, to be corrosive, albeit "colonialist" because of its imposition of a global monoculture on all those who are subject to it. The difference between religious and secular anti-capitalisms could not be more pronounced. This is why it is incredibly difficult to not view the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon as the first colonial rebellion of the era of globalization. As current as such a reading of the attack on America might be, even Berlusconi himself appeared to conclude as such, when, at the same press conference he expressed the most contemporary of colonialist dispositions:

"We should be confident of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it and guarantees respect for human rights and religion," Berlusconi further stated that the West, given the superiority of its values, "is bound to occidentalize and conquer new people...It has done it with the Communist world, and part of the Islamic world, but unfortunately a part of the Islamic world, is 1,400 years behind."

Joel Schalit is a member of the Bad Subjects collective. His first book, Jerusalem Calling: A Homeless Conscience in a Post-Everything World, will be published in January, 2002, by Akashic Books. Joel is also Associate Editor of Chicago's Punk Planet Magazine.

Copyright © 2001 by Joel Schalit. Still image from the film On Guard; courtesy Prelinger archives. All rights reserved.