Empire of Chaos: How 9/11 Shaped the Politics of a Failing State
The events made my mind reel. The angry plumes of smoke, office paper raining like confetti, tumbling windows flashing in the sunlight. I could make out jumpers and watched a jet fighter whoosh by the burning towers, bank and disappear. I thought, “This is like a movie.”
It upset me that my only way to comprehend the events was to reference the Hollywood imaginarium. But it was understandable. Where else would I have seen images resembling the war in my backyard – collapsing skyscrapers, gigantic fireballs and thousands of dead?
The need to make sense of the events of Sept. 11 – the plot by al-Qaeda, four hijacked airliners, the demolished twin towers and nearly 3,000 dead – is universal. It is why the state’s first task after 9/11 – before one bomb dropped, one soldier deployed – was to imprint the “war on terror” on the collective American mindset.
Mere hours after the attack, in his address to the nation, President Bush began assembling the ideological scaffolding for endless war: “ America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world”; “our nation saw evil”; “the American economy will be open for business”; “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them”; and “we stand together to win the war against terrorism.”
Many of the ideas that have shaped the events and policies of the first decade of the war on terror are right there: American exceptionalism, they hate us for our freedoms, capitalism will triumph, and this war will know no geographic or temporal bounds.
These ideas were bundled into the “New American Century,” the neoconservative dream to extend Pax Americana indefinitely. Ten years later that dream has evaporated as the United States is being battered by an economic depression that shows no end. The only question appears to be how quickly America will be eclipsed by China. So how did we get from the triumphalism of “mission accomplished” to the twilight of American Empire?
In essence, the responses to 9/11 by the managers of the corporate-military state, which were largely shaped by ideology, have accelerated a decline that started decades ago. After World War II, U.S. hegemony was based on its ability to order the world. Today, U.S. power is dominant but waning, and its main effect is that of disorder – internationally and domestically. And that disorder is eroding the military, economic, political and diplomatic foundations of its rule.
While there is no certainty that China will usher in a Pacific Century – in the 1980s it was “the Japan threat” that generated U.S. anxiety – American Empire will continue to decay if for no other reason than its economic base has been hollowed out and new power blocs are taking shape across the world.
After WWII, the United States wielded all manner of institutions and ideology in establishing global rule: the Bretton Woods Agreement ordered the world economy, the dollar was the reserve currency, the United Nations legitimized undemocratic big-power rule, the Pentagon and threat of nuclear weapons served as the instruments of violence, the transnational corporation combined with U.S. government aid opened and created new capitalist markets, and anti-Communism undermined and isolated mass anti-capitalist forces in the West. Finally, the compact between capital and labor provided for social welfare, generous benefits and increasing wages so workers could enjoy the consumer bounty in return for purging the left from unions and helping squelch labor movements in the Third World.
By the 1970s that system was fraying. The wealth held by the top 1 percent was plunging because of economic stagnation in the core capitalist economies. Relatively generous social welfare states in the West combined with demands from radicalized minority groups and women for a share of the pie plus assertive decolonized nations in the Third World were squeezing capital.