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Empire of Chaos: How 9/11 Shaped the Politics of a Failing State

The neoconservative ideas that shaped the war on terror have evaporated as the United States is battered by an economic depression that shows no end.

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Neoliberalism was the solution, and Ronald Reagan sold it with slogans like “government is the problem.” But Americans first had to buy the idea that freedom flowed organically from the market, and that government’s role was to maximize opportunity – by “getting out of the way” – so we could succeed or fail by our own initiative.

For all the talk about the rule of markets, neoliberalism was about an upward transfer of wealth. By 1990 wealth and income for the super-rich was near pre-WWII levels. And government was central to that the wealth transfer by imposing austerity on Third World countries, bombing rogue states back into submission, policing and surveilling the domestic front, and perhaps most important, bailing out capital due to the endemic financial bubbles unleashed by deregulation.

Social welfare drew the ire of neoliberal ideologues, which is ironic because that is precisely what would level a grossly slanted playing field. Reagan, America’s avuncular bigot, traded in stereotypes like teenage mothers, welfare cheats, gangbangers and illegal immigrants. He spun yarns about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps and social programs that were “demeaning” and “insulting” to Blacks and Latinos. His rose-colored racism helped convince a critical mass of the public that hacking away at social welfare was somehow in their interest, not that of the oligarchy.

Similarly, the war on terror needed its own brand of white supremacist ideology. Hollywood did its part before Sept. 11 with hundreds of movies replete with Orientalist imagery, as documented in books like  Reel Bad Arabs . One writer observed about the popular image of the Arab, “He is robed and turbaned, sinister and dangerous, engaged mainly in hijacking airlines and blowing up public buildings.”

Other ideas found new currency after 9/11 like the “clash of civilizations” thesis. Bush could not endorse it outright, needing the support of Arab and Muslim states to wage global war, but he gave it credence by speaking of “a struggle for civilization” involving a fight “between  tyranny and freedom.” With Obama in the White House, the right no longer has to worry about the consequences of acting irresponsibly, and many have unabashedly donned the mantle of Islamophobia, the barnyard version of the clash of civilizations.

It has long been a given that the war on terror is a meaningless phrase – how do you wage war on an abstract noun? – but that abstraction is useful. It obscures the concreteness of this war, that it is waged against Muslim people. And warring against an idea rather than a movement, a people, a nation enables the war to continue endlessly. The killing of bin Laden was just another way marker. Hilary Clinton proclaimed, “ the battle to stop al-Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden. [We must] redouble our efforts.”

Another pernicious idea is “everything changed.” It assumes American exceptionalism. Everything could have changed only if the United States was the only country that mattered. All at once, it denies history, marks a closing of “the end of history” – the alleged triumph of the market and liberal democracy – and restarts the historical clock anew.

Everything changed really meant nothing had changed except the complete unshackling of state power. The latest renewal of the Patriot Act, until 2015, retains the National Security letters, roving wiretaps, sweeping record gathering and “lone wolf” provisions.  Direct military spending now in excess of $1 trillion annually combined with domestic austerity is whittling down the state to purely repressive functions of policing, surveillance, detention and war.  The United States is openly bombing six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It has deployed Special Operations forces to 75 countries as part of “ a largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups,” according to the Washington Post . And it continues to expand its global network of rendition, secret prisons and torture.