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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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The forces of the state, corporate interests and their propagandists in academia and the media undoubtedly had a tremendous of amount of power to popularize the post-9/11 mindset, especially given how it was underpinned by racist narratives and an imperial system. But it’s easy to forget there was a popular and viable counter-narrative before 9/11.

The mass protests that derailed the WTO ministerial in Seattle in 1999 marked a coming out moment for the alter-globalization movement. It was a true global phenomenon, it proclaimed “another world is possible,” and it had capitalist globalization on the defensive ideologically and in the streets.

The reality that neoliberalism benefited an elite few, while the rest of humanity coped with the social and ecological devastation, was inspiring tens of thousands to nonviolently shut down meetings of institutions like the WTO, IMF and G-8 that regulate the global capitalist order.

The World Bank-IMF meeting for late September 2001 in Washington, D.C., had been cancelled ahead of time (according to an inside source) because it was decided police forces would be unable to control the tens of thousands of people expected in the streets. Organizers were preparing to take the fight directly to capital with a global day of action against multiple stock exchanges in November 2001. Another reminder of elite fear at the time was that the New York Times speculated that anarchists were behind the 9/11 hijackings and attacks.

Thus, 9/11 was a godsend for Empire. It could construct a harsher authoritarian order at home and embark on a “New American Century” overseas. There was nothing pre-ordained about this, particularly the rapid collapse of the U.S.-based alter-globalization movement. But there was a logic to it.

Market fundamentalism is a centrifugal force. We live in a society where profit and cost-benefit analysis dominate social relations – just look at what is happening to public education. Subjecting everything to market forces tears apart the social forces the state relies upon to rule, like nation, community, kinship and spirituality. As the social order started to fragment by the 1970s, a social glue was needed, which is provided by neoconservatives. David Harvey explains in  A Brief History of Neoliberalism  that the neocons promote a militarized order as the solution to the chaos of the market, and they seek to restore “higher-order values that will form the stable center of the body politics” such as cultural nationalism, family values and Evangelical Christianity. This reliance on a militarized order, argues Harvey, makes the neocons tend to highlight external threats real or perceived, which justifies and expands the corporate-military state.

The Cold War ideology was the free market, democratic liberalism and anti-communism. The post-9/11 ideology updates the militarization and moralism with new categories such as the war on terror, everything’s changed and Islamophobia. It’s remarkably crude – “they hate us for our freedoms” – but it works.

Far from reviving Empire abroad or the economy at home, the war on terror has sapped American power. The obvious beneficiary is China, but it lacks the tools of global rule that the United States still possesses, especially the Pentagon and the dollar, but it is catching up economically.

As evidenced by the global economic rut, China’s hybrid system of authoritarian state-organized capitalism has proved far more resilient than the U.S. system of predatory private corporations. China can enter cutting-edge markets like high-speed rail, solar panel, wind turbine and lithium battery manufacturing and through use of robust state subsidies and planning become the world leader in all of them in barely a decade.

Despite the growing Sinophobia, shown by the hand-wringing over Amy Chua’s  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother , China is in no position to challenge U.S. hegemony. Other than Russia, major regional powers like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and India are in the American camp. China is spreading around its currency, the Renminbi, for settling international trade, but it will likely take decades to supplant the U.S. dollar and Treasury securities. The United Nations may be moribund, but Washington can still bend it to its needs most of the time, and China’s military is decades behind the Pentagon. Perhaps most important, China does not offer a social order that differs in how work, public, educational and community life are organized, and in fact has adopted many of the harshest practices of 19 th century capitalism.